As Orthodox Christians, we find that we fast more than half the year. To fast without any benefit or reason behind it would be pure nonsense. However, our Church always gives us logical reasons for its traditions.
Fasting is a direct command from God. When Adam and Eve were created, God told them that they can eat from every tree in the garden except for that one tree. In this sense, fasting means to abstain from certain types of foods. As the relationship with God of the chosen people Israel developed, other fasting practices and commandments were introduced into their lives including fasting two times a week which we Christians also inherited from our Jewish tradition. The reason why God wants us to fast is because of our own benefit. But what exactly is our benefit?
- In order to live our lives to the fullest, we must learn how to discipline ourselves. It seems contradictory at first; how can being disciplined be freedom, and fulfilling our every desire at any given moment be slavery? By abstaining from certain foods in the periods prescribed by the Church, we learn also how to control our thoughts, passions and anything else that may afflict us in life. Often, people will say it does not matter what you eat but what you say or what comes out of your mouth. This is partially true! If we are not careful about what enters our mouth, what comes out of our mouth may also be dirty. What does this mean? If we cannot fast or do not want to (unless for medical reasons), that can reflect our inability to control our tongue or emotions. The physical fast is training for the spiritual fast.
- All of us have heard the words during liturgy which say: “Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim and who sing the thrice holy hymn to the life-creating Trinity.” Us, human beings, are invited even here on this earth to live the angelic life. By fasting, we give advantage to the spirit, the angelic life, rather than to our bodies. The body which is fasting can pray more efficiently than the body which is filled with food. Everything that can make our communication with God easier is always welcomed in the life of the church.
- We light candles as offerings to God that He may have mercy on us. Whenever we light candles, that should serve as a reminder to all of us that we should be a burning candle in the eyes of the lord all the time. Fasting can help us in this! How? By sacrificing our desire for non-fasting food, we are like a candle that is offered to the lord. Rather than us being constantly worried if we lit a candle or not, let us make our priority that through fasting we become the candle God wants us to be and offer ourselves as the sacrifice to him. As the liturgy says: “Let us commend one another and our whole life unto Christ our God”.
When we fast, we have to observe fasting periods as the Church indicates unless we have a blessing from our spiritual father not to do that due to specific circumstances in our lives. In order to receive grace from fasting, we have to observe the Church’s rules and not our own rules which are usually products of our own weakness. Fasting for seven days, receiving communion, and then ignoring the fasts as prescribed is not according to Church. The best method to determine how strict your fast should be is to talk to your parish priest since there can be no general rules for fasting.