When you fast...Part 1
Updated: Mar 13
In the Sermon on the Mount, Our Lord says to us: “when you pray..”, (Matt 6 v6) “when you give alms…” (Matt 6 v 2). A few verses later, he invites us to fast (Matt 6 vv16,17).
Like everything that God offers us, it is our choice whether or not we accept, but as with anything that God offers, the advantages of accepting the invitation far outweigh the disadvantages of non-acceptance.
One of the issues that we face is that for many of us, if truth be told, have a misconception of fasting for spiritual reasons. This, in many ways is understandable, because we live in an era where we are bombarded with various diet plans, advised which foods are good for us and which are not, and it is easy to get lost, especially as there are those who advocate fasting as a means to good health.
Fasting, of course, certainly in the Christian understanding, does not necessarily refer to food. And because the Church has a keen understanding of how the human psyche works, she guides her children to fast successfully with maximum benefits for them.
My personal spiritual journey began as a child in the Village Chapel. When I was about 18 I joined a church in the next town. After a few years I moved with work to the other side of the country and joined a church there. Sadly in none of these places of worship were we ever taught about fasting. It was left to certain books, written by well known Christian writers to try and help us. Unfortunately, and I found this from the experience of running a Church Bookstall, very few people actually read books. Fasting was a complete mystery.
Two of the scriptures which intrigued me were Matt 17 v 21 and Mark 9 v 29. They are parallel accounts of the same incident, where Jesus gives instruction on dealing with a demon-possessed person. “This kind,” Jesus said, talking about the demon, “can only come out by prayer and fasting.”
How, I wondered, do you “fast” when you meet a demon-possessed person? Clearly one does not “plan” to meet a demon-possessed person, and when you did meet one, you could not go away for a while to fast about it. No, there had to be another way.
Jesus grew up in the synagogue system, which followed a plan of yearly liturgical worship-feasting and fasting on different days to celebrate or express sorrow at certain faith events in history that had shown the mercies of God to the people of Israel. He would be familiar with this cycle and, without a doubt, would be used to regular times of prayer and fasting, as well as periods of feasting.
This, no doubt, is what Our Lord was referring to when He taught that demons come out only by prayer and fasting-a life of regular prayer and fasting is what enables a person to live that holy life which gives them the power to cast demons out.
So it is a shame that certain parts of Christianity seem to ignore the importance of fasting. It seems (and this is just an observation, and I would be very happy to be proved wrong), but it seems that non-liturgical forms of Christianity are the least likely to encourage or teach regular periods of fasting.
The Didache is a document from the Early Church-a very early document, probably written before the Gospels were committed to pen and paper-and a document which explains how Christians ought to live out their lives.
One of the subjects The Didache looks at is Fasting. Remember The Didache was written during the lifetime of several of the Apostles, that the people who compiled The Didache may well have seen or even known Jesus personally, so with that kind of provenance, it, more than likely, will reflect Early Church, First Century practice from the group who were closest to Jesus.
The Didache teaches that Christians should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays-Wednesdays because it was on Wednesday that Judas betrayed Our Lord and Fridays because it was on Friday that Jesus died for our sins.
This practice has lasted in the Byzantine Orthodox Church, but in churches which have come out of the Latin West, it is not encouraged as much. Anglicans and Roman Catholics both practice fasting on Fridays-when I was at school, we always had fish for school dinner on Fridays, this was a hangover from the days when religious views were more strictly observed. But most other groups, although encouraging fasting, do not keep to any of the guidelines of the Apostolic Church.
There are other ways of fasting. Some years ago I was talking to a member of another Christian group about Lent, telling them about (amongst other things) the Lenten Fast. This person looked at me, wide-eyed and asked if we went without food for forty days.
These comments, I suspect, reflect how a lot of people understand fasting. The Church is very wise in her guidance to her children, after all, no one could work for a long period of time without some form of sustenance. The Lenten Fast is normally a vegan diet-no meat, no dairy-it may sound easy, but the experience of those who join the Orthodox Church in their later years is that it is better for the body's internal system to build up over a number of years the habit of a strict Lenten Fast. The Church also recognises that people who work at heavy manual work have more energy demands than those whose profession is more sedentary. Those who are ill, or women who are pregnant, also have dietary demands that need to be taken into account. Of course all this should be done with the guidance of a person's priest, spiritual father or confessor. St Paul, in I Corinthians 7 v 5, also talks about married couples fasting from intimate relations.
In the Orthodox Church, the Divine Liturgy is not served during Lent (just to clarify, in the Orthodox Church, Saturdays and Sundays are not part of Lent) which is why the weekday Liturgies are replaced with services of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts, which are a combination of Vespers and Communion but without the epiklesis-which is not needed because the bread and wine are already sanctified. The Orthodox Church also fasts from reading the New Testament during these times-generally they are seen as periods of preparation, hence all readings are from the Old Testament, which is seen as a preparation for the coming of God's Messiah in the New Testament.
None of this is, of course, compulsory for the Christian, because everything has to start with a desire for God. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware once said, paraphrasing St John Chrysostom, that “it is better to enter Lent, eating meat, with the right attitude, then enter Lent fasting with the wrong attitude.”
If we truly desire God, then we will do what it takes to know Him better, but if we do not truly desire God, why bother?
I hope that these few thoughts serve as a useful introduction to fasting.