Reflection on “The Importance of Fasting and Its Observance Today”

by Rev. Dr. Stelyios Muksuris, Rev. Dr. Alkiviadis Calivas, Rev. Dr. Nicholas Denysenko, John Klentos, Paul Meyendorff, Lewis Patsavos, Teva Regule, and Rev. Dr. Philip Zymaris.

In accordance with Orthodox Christian scriptural and patristic tradition, fasting finds its origins in the divine commandment given in paradise (Gen 2.16-17; St. Basil, On Fasting 1.3; PG 31.168A), where man is invited to honor his relationship with God by obedience. One sees God thereby as the benevolent Source of all goodness (Mt 4.4) and humanity as the beneficiary of His benevolence. While typically referenced within the context of partial or complete abstinence from food and drink, its interior principle focuses on a dynamic interface between harnessing instinctive behavior and living the precepts of the Gospel. In other words, fasting seeks to assist us in reprioritizing our allegiances from an addictive dependence upon worldly goods to an intimate relationship with God and neighbor.   

Fasting as the “ascetic ideal” is always understood as a means — an instrument — for strengthening the soul and body, never as an end in itself. It centers primarily on the conformity of our will with God’s purpose. This internal transformation begins with the eradication of sin in order for us to see clearly the state of our relationship with God, our fellow human beings and ourselves. It leads to repentance, empowering us to extend ourselves through merciful and loving service to others as a positive affirmation of virtue. Fasting should not be practiced in isolation nor perceived as a burdensome activity. On the contrary, it contributes joyously to the reprioritization of spiritual goals by interacting dynamically through intense prayer, personal reflection, almsgiving, and immersion in the Church’s sacramental life.

The prescribed periods of fasting (Nativity, Lent, Apostles, Dormition), like the weekly fasts, prompt the Church to fast collectively as a sign of solidarity and mutual support of its members and find fulfillment in the Divine Liturgy. Even the Eucharistic fast, as an individual preparation for Communion, engages the communicant into a conversion process from emphasis of self to other. Since the Eucharist constitutes the “most profound expression” of the Church (§9), fast and feast highlight the communal nature of liturgical worship, which in turn reflects the eschatological nature of the Kingdom of God. We fast individually for our own spiritual benefit as a means of expressing repentance and fulfilling a pledge of obedience to God. Yet, we also fast as Church, containing within ourselves prayerfully and compassionately awareness of our common humanity with its brokenness and hopefulness. In imitation of the example set by Christ in the desert (Mt 4.1-2), we are likewise called by the Spirit to prepare ourselves through fasting and prayer for a life dedicated to the spiritual work of charity toward others.

In keeping with this multidimensional view of fasting, it is important not to reduce its discipline to a set of rules with minimal connection to this “positive” nature of the fast. A plethora of patristic and liturgical texts, especially during the first week of the Great Fast, reminds us of this truth.

Specifically, the aforementioned precaution may apply to the imposition by clergy of fasting regulations upon the faithful which prove to be burdensome and devoid of spiritual or bodily benefit. With regard to liturgical or spiritual practices such as fasting, the canonical tradition of the Church takes an incarnational approach to the regulations within its corpus. The canons serve as guidelines that take under consideration not only the original purpose for which they were intended, but also the measure of one’s ability to benefit from them. Hence, if one is physically sick or in spiritual conflict, the proper concessions are foreseen to prevent an unwanted consequence to the detriment of the person in such a state.

With regard to the increasingly complex dietary challenges experienced by the faithful today — often dictated by various chronic maladies previously unknown (e.g., celiac disease) or other equally legitimate circumstances (unavailability of “traditional” fasting foods) — the categories of “quantity” and “quality” of food (simple, inexpensive, albeit unhealthy, as opposed to elaborate, costly, though healthier foods) should be revisited. Given variable cultural and social contexts between local churches and regions, fasting regulations will naturally differ, so one cannot realistically expect a uniformity in practice.

Although the conciliar text addresses the adverse conditions that pose challenges to fasting only generally and exhorts the faithful to exercise pastoral sensitivity in such cases (§8), one senses a partiality for the monastic practice of fasting. To this impression, the words of St. Diadochos of Photiki are especially instructive:

We should therefore regulate our food according to the condition of the body, so that it is appropriately disciplined when in good health and adequately nourished when weak. The body of one pursuing the spiritual way must not be enfeebled; he must have enough strength for his labors so that the soul may be suitably purified through bodily exertion as well. [St. Diadochos of Photiki, “On Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination: One Hundred Texts”, 45 in The Philokalia, vol. 1, p. 266.]

Some general comments on the document on fasting include: (1) the need for accurate and precise translations to avoid confusion (e.g., in §2, «ὡς μέσον ἐγκρατείας, μετανοίας καὶ πνευματικῆς ἀνατάσεως» is best translated “as a means of self-restraint, repentance, and spiritual uplifting”); (2) better usage of appropriate scriptural citations to support a position (e.g., the selected verses in §2 — Mk 1.6, Acts 13.2 and 14.21, Rom 14.21 — give minimal direct support to the aforementioned themes); (3) in §8, the application of the reference to Ezekiel 33.11 in this context makes the wrongful assumption that non-adherence to the “prevailing fasting guidelines” renders the faithful “sinful and wicked”; (4) better clarity and unitive coherence throughout the document (e.g., in §5, should not the “spiritual struggle of the fast,” besides the dietary component, refer also to the other equally important threads, such as abstinence, prayer, almsgiving?). And abstinence from distracting behaviors, such as excessive usage of electronic devices or boisterous, unbridled forms of entertainment, affirms the modest nature of a holistic fast; and (5) the document may give the impression that the intense ascetical struggle practiced by the faithful leads to their salvation as an individual achievement, whereas salvation as a gift of God to be received humbly and joyfully may be overlooked.

Fasting must not be seen simply as an ascetical discipline observed periodically during the ecclesiastical year, but as an expression of authentic Christian living to be observed regularly. In this sense, it rewards those who fast joyfully, as well as the world for which they fast and pray fervently.

Nicholas Denysenko is Associate Professor of Theological Studies and Director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute at Loyola Marymount University.

Alkiviadis Calivas is Emeritus Professor of Liturgics at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.

John Klentos is Associate Professor of Eastern Orthodoxy Studies at the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute and the Graduate Theological Union.

Paul Meyendorff is the Alexander Schmemann Professor of Liturgical Theology at St. Vladimir’s Seminary.

Stelyios Muksuris is Professor of Liturgical Theology at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Saints Cyril and Methodius.

Lewis Patsavos is Emeritus Professor of Canon Law at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.

Teva Regule is a doctoral candidate in the theology department at Boston College.

Philip Zymaris is Assistant Professor of Liturgics at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.

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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