Fasting, the Church, and the World
Reflecting Jesus’s own Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7)—a passage which has been and remains the standard of Orthodox Christian ethics—the preconciliar document, “The Importance of Fasting and Its Observance Today”, carefully balances two points: first, the Church’s emphasis on admittedly “lofty” fasting standards (cf. §5) and, second, the practical adoption of these standards among the faithful. With regard to the former, the document thoughtfully resists the temptation to ignore “the value of the fast” (§8) by becoming more lax in fasting rules; with regard to the latter, the document exhorts the Church to treat “instances where the sacred prescriptions of fasting are loosened” with “pastoral care,” with a particular, and much appreciated, freedom given to local Orthodox Churches “to determine how to exercise philanthropic oikonomia and empathy” (§8). As Jesus does not seek to conceal the difficult standards to which God calls us in his commandments, so also he exhorts his people both to avoid prideful and boastful asceticism (Luke 18:10–14) and to be merciful as God himself is (Luke 6:36).
Yet, despite the numerous ways that this document supports and carries forward the Orthodox tradition of, and justification for, fasting, it also bears a surprisingly un-Orthodox feature: It gives little justification for fasting beyond the benefit that it brings to the individual. The document would do well not only to remind the faithful of the importance of a relationship with a spiritual elder in determining one’s fasting, but also to provide the sort of pastoral leadership that so much of the world is lacking, by drawing people away from individualistic spirituality toward a communal concern for others.
One’s fasting practice, though unnoted in this document, has tremendous effect on others, as fasting is never done individually but always in relationship (with God, each other, and the environment). At the very least, St. Paul recognizes that one’s choice to fast or not fast bears the potential of unnecessarily disturbing brothers and sisters in Christ (cf. Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8). On a much larger scale—as St. Basil and the preconciliar document both recognize (§1)—fasting and the failure to fast has affected all humanity and the entire world since the Garden of Eden. To avoid a particular food was the first prohibitive commandment God gave to Adam and Eve, whose decision to disobey adversely affected humankind in their wake. This means that the Church, in advocating for fasting, must have in mind not only its own members, but all of humanity. All of humanity, not just members of the Church, is regularly subject to the root of Adam and Eve’s failures: covetousness for more and for everything. Entire economies, particularly in the developed world, are based on ensuring that any and all things are available for immediate consumption, distancing the consumer from the source of their food and eradicating any spiritual dimension to the choice of what, when or how much to eat.
The sin of Adam and Eve manifests itself in every person in terms of tendencies: the tendency to do evil, rather than good; to take what we want, rather than give what we have; to self-preserve rather than self-sacrifice. If this preconciliar document is going to benefit the world in and outside the Orthodox Church—in a manner faithful to the Orthodox tradition—it needs to address these tendencies and the ways in which fasting (however big or small one’s rule might be) are meant to realign them. This will help Orthodox Christians to see more clearly the connection between fasting and service to God and neighbor, and to recognize more easily opportunities for asceticism in the decisions of daily life.
The document expresses the ideal of fasting in terms appealing to those already familiar with the Orthodox tradition. But given that other Christian traditions have deemphasized literal fasting, sometimes to near nonexistence, the document could do more by serving as a venue for the Orthodox Church to take the lead in raising awareness of fasting not just as a spiritual benefit (on that, the document does well), but as a communal benefit. Something analogous here would be the Ecumenical Patriarch’s push for raising environmental awareness in recent decades: While his view is shaped by a distinctly Orthodox understanding of the transfiguration and redemption of all of creation (not just souls) in Christ, his leadership has had tremendous effect on national policies and statements from other Christian bodies.
As the Ecumenical Patriarch himself has acknowledged, “There has never been a greater need for spiritual leaders to engage themselves in the affairs of this world.” Such a disposition is too little evident in this document. What our world and our Church needs now is a document that does not merely reaffirm fasting rules but communicates the inspiration for those rules—a document that does not merely offer a review of the historical origins of fasting or the justifications offered by the fathers or canonical tradition (though both are tremendously important), but a pastoral and spiritual reminder to ourselves and the wider world of what fasting does for us and for the world from which we draw our sustenance. This could be the best antidote to the legalistic view of fasting which can certainly be found among Orthodox today, and which is the surest way of bringing the whole discipline of fasting into disrepute. Such an approach would mean deemphasizing the solely individualistic necessity of fasting and elevating its communal effect. It would mean addressing how the “lofty” ideal of Orthodox fasting can work to resist the greed that ruins economies, the overconsumption that causes many to go hungry, the incessant material demands that lead to the abuse of animals and the ruin of entire environments (cf. §3).
Particularly in developed countries, we regularly avoid thinking about our food. If we want it, we buy it; if we desire it, we eat it. More and more, for those with comfortable financial resources, the only cause for one to think about what one eats is individual physical health. Should this preconciliar document take the lead in the Christian world and communicate the spiritual, communal, and environmental reasons for fasting according to the Orthodox tradition, it would then, and only then, offer to those in and outside the Church reasons to carefully consider what they eat, not just for the sake of their own health, but for the life of the world.
Dn. Michael Azar is Assistant Professor of New Testament and early Patristics in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Scranton.
Elizabeth Theokritoff is Visiting Lecturer at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge, England.
Fr. Harry Linsinbigler is Adjunct Instructor of Theology at St. Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Seminary in South Bound Brook, New Jersey and Pastor of Holy Protection Orthodox Church in Dover, Florida.
This essay was sponsored by the Orthodox Theological Society in America’s Special Project on the Holy and Great Council and published by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.
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