In our reading from the Holy Prophet Isaiah today (Isaiah 58:1-11), God reminds us of what He really wants during a fast…to also stop doing bad things and do good by helping those in need. He says if we will do this during our fasting: “Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’”
Jesus established fasting as a normal part of the life of those who would follow Him as He said: “When you fast…” (Matthew 6:16-18). He didn’t say “If”, but rather “When” …showing that fasting is to be a normal part of our Christian lives. Why would the Lord ask us to fast? We know that He loves us and desires the very best for our lives. The Lord’s very best and our idea of what is the often seem to disagree. But when we obey, we may find ourselves blessed in ways we never could have imagined.
Listen to what St. Athanasius has to say about fasting in his treatise, “On Virginity”: “Fasting cures ills and dries up bodily tumors, casts out demons, and turns away evil thoughts; it makes the mind brighter, the heart clean, and the body holy; and it presents man before the Throne of God.” Wow, that is quite a list of the benefits of fasting for the Christian.
St. John Cassian writes: “Self-control and fasting are especially important for bringing about that specific purity of soul which comes through restraint and moderation. No one whose stomach is full can fight mentally against the demon of unchastity. Our initial struggle therefore must be to gain control of our stomach and to bring our body into subjection.” Fasting is not a cake-walk…pardon the pun. We are being called to a discipline that involves effort on our part.
St. John Chrysostom reminds us that our fast is not simply about food and drink: “The honor of fasting consists not in abstinence from food, but in withdrawing from sinful practices…Do you fast? Give me proof of your works! If you see a poor man, take pity on him! If you see an enemy, be reconciled to him! If you see a friend gaining honor, do not envy him! If you see a beautiful woman (or a handsome man ladies), pass her (him) by! For let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye, and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies.”
St. Cyril of Jerusalem (+386) in “The Catechetical Lectures” tells us: “For we fast by abstaining from wine and meat, not because we abhor them as abominations, but because we look for our reward; that having scorned things sensible, we may enjoy a spiritual and intellectual feast.”
The choice is totally ours when it comes to fasting. No one is forcing us. We are free to fast or to eat steak and ice cream for every meal through each fasting time. That’s the way God is…our relationship with Him is a matter of our free will. Even if you haven’t fasted at all through this Great Lent, it is not too late to begin if your health allows it. If you can’t fast, there is still time to increase your devotional life. Holy Week awaits us…and the choice is ours to make. Perhaps “To Fast or Not to Fast?” really is a question before us.
Journeying with you to the empty tomb of Christ…Fr. Stephen