In Byzantine spirituality, abstaining from meat and dairy becomes very easy after you get used to it. Even with that, the restriction from oil, wine, and fish begin to come easier and easier as the Christian gets used to giving up those items on a regular basis. Because of that, some will abstain from eating totally (or at least until the 9th hour – 3pm) on the strict fast days. With all that said and done, our bodies are very adaptable. People can live as vegans with no problem, some people can survive for years eating junk food. Sure they get sick after a while, but the body gets by for the time being. Our bodies are able to adapt, making it feel easier and easier the more we do it. Thus, the people who think that the benefit to fasting comes from overcoming difficulty and enduring pain are missing the point.
At the same time, it isn’t about giving up a certain type of food either. We see all of these restrictions in the Typikon varying from fish to no fish to no oil and wine. And, of course, the tendency is to become extremely legalistic. I can’t tell you the number of times I found myself combing through the ingredient lists at the store to make sure that the thing I was about to buy wouldn’t break the fast. Or worse, grabbing a Lenten cookbook to make these extravagant desserts and meals that, while fulfilling the letter of the law certainly went against its spirit!
I think the aspect we forget the most when fasting on these strict fast days is not that the Fathers wanted us to become so worried about what to eat and what not to eat that it becomes the primary focus of our fast. It is actually the opposite. When we eat simply, yes we will endure some cravings and hunger pangs, but we can take our minds off of what to eat and how to cook it. Most of the food we fast from takes time to season, prepare, and cook. Fasting foods are very simple and require little preparation.
Still, all that mentioned above is fasting discipline. In reality, fasting is a spirituality. The prophet Isaiah writes in Chapter 58 of what true fasting is:
3‘Why have we fasted, and thou seest it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and thou takest no knowledge of it?’
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers.
4 Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a rush,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 “Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am.
“If you take away from the midst of you the yoke,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
11 And the Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your desire with good things,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters fail not.
12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in.
Here we see the instructions to accompany our fast. Notice how the prophet never says to replace fasting with these things but rather to include them with the discipline. I wrote earlier that fasting in itself is medicinal rather than a punishment and that fasting existed before the fall. Thus, to not fast at all is wrong. But I’ve also noticed another tendency as well. People either want to do the works of mercy listed here and only fast somewhat, or they want to fast legalistically and not pour themselves out for others. According to this passage, that kind of fasting will bear no spiritual fruit.
Are we seeking our own pleasures by fasting? Has it become a game to see if we can make it or has it any meaning at all? Has it become just something that we do out of habit now? The purpose behind our fasting is to soften our hearts so that when we do turn from sin, we have chosen God over materials even in our weakness – a reinforcement that our need for God is superior to any other need we may have. When we fast, are we trying harder to avoid sin? Or do we toot our own horns about our fasting, thus fueling our own pride.
Notice how it is written that he wouldn’t choose a fast of sackcloth and ashes. Why? I thought fasting was about repentance. Well, it is. It is very much about repentance. Isaiah warns us against a “fast as a rush.” That is a fast that is over and done with, no real change occurring. Is it any coincidence that Jesus says to anoint our heads and fast secretly so that no one knows we are fasting? These guys in scripture were fasting for public recognition, and the interesting thing about the Bible is that no matter when it was written, and no matter who the original audience was, human nature never changes and many of the criticisms of humanity are just as valid today as they were in those days.
How many people do we see posting on Instagram on Ash Wednesday their “AshTag” or do we see posting on Facebook about how much their fast sucks and how hard it is. Or when Friday rolls around and people show off their vegan/vegetarian meals? That’s all the fast is to them – something they do. If you combine the messages of Isaiah and Jesus (because really it’s all meant to be one message, after all) we are supposed to do the hard stuff, the stuff everyone wants to brag about, secretly. We should give to the poor in our fasting, and yes, we should fast. But we shouldn’t do it for attention.
But most of all, it should become spiritual as well as physical. We should use our fasts as an opportunity to turn away from sins and to grow closer to not only our neighbors but to God as well. Then we will be participating in a fast that doesn’t end “in a rush.”