Moreover, when ye fast, be not as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face, that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father, Who is in secret: And thy Father, Who seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly. (Matthew 6:16-18)
I’ve noticed something. Nothing can be as offensive to the food-loving American as the concept of fasting. My Orthodox faith has come under fire from more people over this concept than even the veneration of icons has. Some of the tirades against this spiritual discipline I’ve heard thus far include:
Food restrictions — that’s like Judaism!
What do you get out that?
That’s in the Bible?
Why is the church so full of fat priests then?
….and so on, ad nauseum.
People, especially well-fed Americans, do not much appreciate the concept of fasting. It is contrary to the common belief that a man needs to eat a good breakfast to have a good day. That includes prayer. (Suffice it is to say, concepts like prayer breakfasts and ministry men’s lunch & skeet shoot most certainly originated right here in the megachurches & prosperity shrines where esteemed restaurateurs like KFC, Roy Rogers, McDs and Chuck E. Cheese’s originated.) It is also contrary to the American spirit of high-caloric intake followed by diets, arduous exercise routines, and, eventually, bariatric surgery and liposuction (preceded, of course, by a quick prayer to the Almighty to guide the liposuctor’s hand). And let’s not forget the oxygen machines that help us fatlings breathe better when we sleep because of our weight.
It is very convenient to ignore the ancient Church’s teachings about prayer and fasting, but fasting is indeed an important undertaking for a Christian. To quote a friend of mine, “It is a lot easier to pray on an empty stomach.”
There is a lot more to this than that, but that’s a great starting point.
Let us remember that Christ spoke to us not about the preservation of the body but of the soul. St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “Our whole endeavor should be for the soul; the body should be strengthened only so that it might aid in the strengthening of the spirit.”
But this charge from the Great Homily tells us not to look pained during a fast, but to keep a stiff upper lips so that we may receive greater blessings from above. I think that would translate in the modern age to walking around telling people that we are fasting. That just invites trouble, and this I speak from experience.
About the oil, the Blessed Theophylact wrote, “Men of old would anoint themselves with oil after bathing as a mark of their joy and well-being. So you also, O reader, should appear joyful when you fast.”
When I first became Orthodox I heard many speaking of the great joy of entering Great Lent, the longest period of sustained fasting by the Church. I was a bit perplexed. For me, that meant seven weeks without sausage pizza and rib eye. Now, when I see how much good additional prayer and spiritual vigilance can bring on top of an enduring period of fasting, I am beginning to see the light.
The main gist of this section of the Sermon on the Mount is non-ostentation. Christ instructs us to:
a) Give alms secretly
b) Pray secretly
c) Fast secretly
In other words, these spiritual disciplines must be done to feed our souls, not to impress others. St. Augustine said, “It is manifest from these precepts that all our effort is to be directed towards inward joys, lest, seeking a reward from without, we should be conformed to this world, and should lose the promise of a blessedness so much the more solid and firm, as it is inward, in which God has chosen that we should become conformed to the image of His Son.” To many persons of faith, these admonitions must seem like no-brainers. But in fact, Christ spoke to the religious institutions of His time as well, and they must have had some issues with ostentatious acts of giving alms, praying & fasting. I would say that we still will have issues with that, and I think that fasting secretly could be the hardest to accomplish, because when we are offered food (and it always seems that I am offered proscribed foods the most often) to decline it often leads to a declaration that we are fasting. (I have not yet discovered the best way to handle this and am open to suggestions.)
I will also say this, Orthodox fasting is not absolute (some foods are permitted, except for the Eucharistic fast, which precludes food and water on the morning before we take Holy Communion). We are allowed to eat certain foods to get us through the day and are supposed to have smaller portions and not snack between meals. St. Seraphim said, “One should partake of enough food every day so that the body, strengthened, may be the friend and helper of the soul in the performance of virtue; otherwise it may happen that, while wearing out one’s body, one’s soul also grow weak.”
That said, I am now getting up to investigate the inviting fried food aroma emanating from the kitchen. Even though I may now know a little about fasting, I still know a heck of a lot more about being a hypocrite.