Well that was fast (pun intended). It’s already the second week in November. That means Thanksgiving is rapidly approaching, and of course, that means I saw a commercial with Santa in it this past weekend. Fiat is already preparing for Christmas, it would seem.
But for Orthodox Christians, the preparation for Christmas doesn’t begin until November 15th–the day on which the Advent fast begins, the forty day preparation for the Nativity.
Now, if you’re like me, your first thought is, “No more meat,” and your second thought is, “No more meat,” and your third thought is, “Wow, this gives me an excuse to eat bacon every meal until November 15th.”
But fasting has more meaning than that, has more value than that, and I would argue that in college, that value is augmented. It’s impossible to say that a certain arena of our spiritual lives is more important than another, but my experience of fasting in college life tells me that it’s really unique for us, as students. I’d like to think about why.
Firstly, I dunno about y’all, but I had about zero control over what I ate in high school. Whatever was in the pantry was going to be breakfast and lunch for the school day, and whatever my family cooked for dinner was going to be dinner. When it was a fasting period, my mother and father ensured that the only food purchased/prepared was in accordance with the fast. On the off-chance I was purchasing food (maybe on a Wednesday or a Friday) I occasionally forgot–when I was a little kid I always used to buy chili dogs at Friday Night football games–but I was usually pretty solid.
Most of my fasting was, thereby, the choice of my family. That’s fine and good, that’s the passing on of values and traditions, that’s important. But now, I go to the dining hall every day, and there’s a vegetarian station and a vegan station and salads AND A PERMANENT TACO BAR WHICH IS TOTALLY BONKERS. If I don’t want dining hall food, I often cook for myself, and I’m the guy buying the groceries. If I fast, it’s my choice. I always have an opportunity, I always have the means. Fasting, much more so than before, is a decision that I make, and I own the consequences whether I make it or not.
The question easily follows: why make the choice, then?
There is, of course, an easy answer: because we are told to. Obedience is vital, but it is always good to understand why it is we do what we do–especially because fasting is one of the best ways to begin a discussion with someone else on campus about Orthodoxy. People constantly ask me if I’m a vegan/vegetarian, and it opens the door to introduce them to the faith.
So, why fast? I’m no theologian or seminarian, so I can’t tell you perfectly. That’s a good question for a priest.
I can tell you, however, how fasting impacts me.
It makes me feel better. More like the person I’m supposed to be, the person I wish I could be more consistently. Fasting–a little choice, a simple choice, three times a day–recaptures that feeling you sometimes get after an amazing sermon, after acts of service, after reading a prayer or scripture, after hearing a beautiful hymn. Fasting, in short, brings us closer to God.
People will ask how it does this. Quite simply, by letting go of something earthly, there is more room for the heavenly. By relinquishing a tether to the body, you can acquire a tether to the soul.
All of this being said, I don’t really feel the need to understand how, I just have the experience that it does. I have an opportunity to grow closer to God, and I always try to take those opportunities.
But, in all things, in all arenas of the spiritual life, nothing is a panacea. Nothing is an end-all, be-all. Fasting without prayer and almsgiving, fasting without daily reading and service attendance, will likely falter. Of course, by the same logic, prayer life falters without fasting. The spiritual life is holistic, and fasting is an integral piece in the heavenly pie.
The Advent fast begins on November 15th (with a day off for Thanksgiving, and oh, what a glorious day that is). I encourage you to find the permanent taco bar in your dining hall, make a daily choice, and see what it does for you. I think you’ll like what you find.