Yesterday we entered the Great and Holy Fast of the Holy Orthodox Church. While it is almost unheard of for an Orthodox Christian to not be aware of the concept and season of the Great Fast, it is far more likely to find Orthodox Christians who are certainly unfamiliar with the common and customary practices of the fast, or to find persons who have never really engaged the fast. So in honor of the Great and Holy Fast, it might be good if we look briefly at the history of the fast, why we fast and why we as Orthodox Christian individuals may want to consider engaging the fast more fervently now, or even begin it for the first time ever.
Historically, there has almost always been some kind of engaged fast in preparation for the historical celebration within the Holy Orthodox Church of the Resurrection(Pascha) of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ either by catechumen or full-fledged member! While church historians love a good debate regarding the particulars of when it began and what it included, the fact that there was some kind of fast associated with the feast is generally settled, there was one. For some it included a rigorous one day, all day fast before the feast, for others a more lengthy and slightly less-intense extended fast. It included fasts that involved the complete abstinence of all food all the way to lesser fasts or small abstinences that restricted only some or certain foods. Over the first few centuries, different churches in different parts of the world experienced at least as many variances of fasting. However, as the church matured she continually sought out the guidance of the Holy Spirit, whom saw fit to unify the pre-Resurrection fasting of the faithful throughout the whole world.
It was then revealed in time to the Bride of Christ, through the life of the Holy Church across the globe that it would be good and holy for all Orthodox Christians to fast in loving unison, in preparation for this most Holy and Honored Feast of Feasts. The church, very “organically” if you will, settled on a fast (errr abstinence) of a forty-day period leading up to the Great and Holy Week before the celebration of the Resurrection. That is, by the action and revelation of the Holy Spirit, the Forty Day Fasting period came out of a Holy accord within the church, whereby Orthodox Christians all over the world began to embrace this extended fast, which was already well known to the Holy Fathers even in the third and fourth centuries. The forty-day period may be likened also the Lords forty-day fast in the wilderness!
Now in regards to the why, let’s be clear, there is no single answer, if someone tries to give you only one as the foundation and whole, I would reject it for being the “only reason,” for since all human beings are different, struggling with different and varied passions, the Lord may choose to allow the fast to work differently for each of us and that must be allowed. The fast allows us so many opportunities to grow in our faith and also in our appreciation of the abundance of God’s Grace and earthly bounty! For he or she who truly engages the Holy Fast, they will be:
- Tempering their earthly wants and engaging real freedom (taking only what they need, leaving what they don’t, rather than simply taking by animal impulse alone),
- Reflecting on Eden where our diet was simple and good,
- Reflecting on God Whom is the giver of all good things,
- Creating opportunity to necessarily try and experience new and varied foods and experiences guided by temperance rather than consuming through the monotony of impulse eating,
- Replacing some of the time spent eating with prayer and reflection,
- Engaging ascetical practice with millions of their Orthodox brothers and sisters at the same times and moments,
- Purifying their bodies of some luxury in order that the luxury and Joy of the Great and Holy Feast may be experienced in all its glory,
- Opening themselves up to, by removal of some things unnecessary, to the filling of a void that can and will be filled with God’s Grace and the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself
So now is the time to determine the plan, so as to achieve the goal. If the goal is important for you to experience the fullness of the Great Feast of the Resurrection, if the goal is to enter Lent as you are and with the hope that you will come out New and Stronger, if the goal is to make an attempt to return to the faith of your forebearers and to open up yourself to the saving Grace of Jesus Christ, I implore you, get it done! For your life is happening now, the choices you make right now are determining your future, for those choices aren’t future ones, self-defining opportunities are happening and are in front of you right now. If you have never fasted before, go to your priest or spiritual father and tell them truthfully, “I’m not good at this” or “I have never done this before, where do I start?” If that opportunity is not readily available to you, pray and start the fast yourself. Start with the abstinence of meat as the food core or your fast, maybe include a fast from alcohol (you know you can do it, so do it) and start wiping out the sins of greed, avarice and gossip from your palate. Fast from images that disgust, and words that hurt. Forgive others so that the Lord may forgive you, for the two actions are coterminous, one upon the other. We here at OCF believe that if any part of your person truly desires Theosis and unity with God, that the Lord will not leave you alone, but fill you and build you up into the fulfillment of that which you were originally designed to be, the fullness of the image of God.