Grace and peace be with you, my brothers and sisters in Christ! Let us pray that the Spirit grant us wisdom and understanding as we delve into another short chapter of deep significance to our faith.
This chapter is unusually short and the reader is directed to a longer exposition by Fr. Matta in a chapter entitled, “The Deep Meaning of Fasting” found in his book, The Communion of Love. (I do not know who posted this chapter online but click here if you wish to view it.)
God willing, I will write as one informed by both sources, knowing that my treatment of the topic will inevitably be inadequate.
A number of questions come to mind as we enter this aspect of the interior way. What does it mean to fast? Why is it so important to our faith? Does fasting need to be an abstinence from food or may other works take its place?
Often we can become distracted by the external specifics of what it means to fast. Does it mean that I am not to eat or drink at all? Or does it mean to refrain from eating certain foods, such as the Western tradition of abstaining from meat on Fridays or the Orthodox practice of fasting from meat, eggs, dairy products, fish, wine or oil on certain days?
If, for a moment, we can set all of this aside, we can understand that fasting involves following Jesus and it has no meaning for us apart from Him. There is no virtue inherent in bodily deprivation if no prayer accompanies it.
And the primary motive of fasting is love. While subjugation of the self is a valued side effect of fasting, it is pointless if love is not its foundation.
To introduce us to the sacredness of fasting, Fr. Matta reminds us that Jesus, once filled by the Holy Spirit at His baptism, was led into the desert where he fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. There He faced and defeated the tempter for the first time.
It was only then that He began His public ministry, curing diseases, forgiving sins and casting out demons. We are also prompted to recall the words of Jesus when demons resisted His disciples’ exorcisms: “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.” (Mark 9: 29)
And so we know that Jesus fasted and that His fasting was powerful, “a weapon forged by God” (St. Isaac the Syrian). But this fasting is not a weapon in itself – it is always united to prayer.
In this context, Fr. Matta tells us of three primary phases in the life of Christ: His baptism, which filled Him with the Spirit; His fasting; and His death on the Cross, His final and perfect victory.
Elaborating on the centrality of fasting in Christ’s life, Fr. Matta takes us to the Eucharist and writes: “The Lord crucified Himself for the world before the world crucified Him. He carried out the offering of His body, His self, as a sacrifice on behalf of the world…”
It was because He first crucified His own body in the fasting (prior to His death and resurrection) that He could then offer His body and blood at the Last Supper, as “given” and “shed”. In this, we know that His death was voluntary – truly a sacrifice and not a simple execution.
And Scripture makes known to us that it was a sacrifice of love by telling of His agony the night before. Clearly, on a human level, He did not want to die this death. But mystically, in Eucharist, He gave Himself to us before He was arrested so that we would have no doubt that it was love, not force, that led Him to take this next step.
With this backdrop from the life of Christ, we might then wonder how this relates to us and our need to fast.
Fr. Matta begins “The Deep Meaning of Fasting” with the following words: “The Church imitates Christ. All that Christ has done the Church also does; He becomes its life.”
Invited into total communion with Him, our “yes” cannot be mere words – there must be works. But, “He, as true Bridegroom, did not leave us to invent works for ourselves but laid down the course of our works and life”. He bids us, “follow Me,” as He Himself is our Way.
To follow in this manner is not some theoretical notion, some idea that we are to work out in our minds. It is an action, an imitating of Him, doing what He did. Our fast is thus to be derived from His fast, as our love derived from His love.
Apart from Him, we can do nothing. Or at least we cannot do it rightly.
To follow Him to the Cross, we must resist and forsake our self. Is this not what Jesus did? And fasting gives us a truly physical way to enter this experience. It is following Him with our entire being.
And the meaning of this, Fr. Matta tells us, is “the mental acceptance of death itself”. Comparing this to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, he indicates that we must be fully willing to “experience the destruction of our self” – even if we are not called to carry it out fully.
Hence, if we attempt to offer “anything in place of ourselves it is rejected”. We may prefer to offer some other sacrifice, perhaps service or money. But nothing in this world can take the place of the offering of our very selves.
This is not to say, of course, that there will not be other works for us to complete to give glory to God. The Apostles, after all, “inherited the entire life of Christ” which, in addition to fasting, included night-long prayer, ministry to the sick and demon-possessed, persecution and even crucifixion itself.
Oh my. Having just written all of this, it seems surprising that anyone at all signs up for Christianity…
And perhaps that is part of the problem. Relatively few people truly do. I find it much easier to simply go to church, say some prayers, do some kind deeds and follow the rules.
Tell me what to eat or not eat – I’ll do it. It’s not really that hard.
But this – this giving up of my self to the point of destruction – this is an entirely different thing. Especially given that it is not just some idea in my mind but it actually involves my body too.
So what is Fr. Matta saying? Am I to stop eating and drinking for 40 days so as to imitate the life of the Savior?
Most certainly he is not saying this.
In fact, he makes it quite clear that “we fast not to receive anything or to offer anything, for we have received Christ, and in Him we have already received everything before we fast. In Him we receive everything before we are born”.
Then what does he intend for us to learn about fasting?
While reading the brief passage in our current text, I found myself seeking out dictionary definitions. What are all these things that Fr. Matta says fasting is and is not? (See p. 230.)
It is not deprivation (“the damaging lack of material benefits considered to be basic necessities”*). Rather, it is a voluntary abstinence (“the practice of not doing or having something that is wanted or enjoyable”).
It is not humiliation of the flesh (causing to “feel ashamed and foolish by injuring their dignity and self-respect”) Rather, it refreshes the spirit (to “give new strength or energy to”).
It does not fetter the senses (“to restrain from motion, action, or progress”). Instead, it releases them from anything that hinders contemplation of God. (“to set free from restraint, confinement, or servitude”).
Similarly, the purpose of fasting is not to repress the appetite for food (“subdue something by force”). Instead, it is to renounce this appetite (“to refuse to follow, obey, or recognize any further”) and, in doing so, to elevate it (“to lift up or make higher”) so that it may delight in the love of God.
Its aim is joy and magnanimity of heart (“loftiness of spirit enabling one to bear trouble calmly, to disdain meanness and pettiness, and to display a noble generosity”).
And so…how do I fast and why do I fast?
I follow the fast I am given. I follow the fast of the Church.
I follow the fast given me by Christ. (And if the latter differs greatly from that of the Church, I maintain obedience to a spiritual father/mother/director, lest I fall into sin or delusion, setting my own rules to satisfy my ego.)
I fast because my Savior fasted.
I fast to demonstrate in this small work, with more than just words, that I love.
I fast (and pray), employing the weapon given me by my Lord to use in the battle against evil.
I fast so as to refresh my spirit and free it from the appetites that hinder its contemplation of God.
And I fast so as to be taught to give myself completely – body, mind and spirit – so as to be able to accept death without fear.
I fast so that in accepting death I might follow Him – to the Cross and through death into Life.
All of this may make it sound like I fast a great deal. I do not.
As I am taught to not worship myself and not worship pleasure, so too am I taught to not worship suffering.
For it is not by the suffering of Jesus that we are saved but by His love.
In His love, I find joy in the beauty of creation and celebrate the gifts of sight and sound, smell and taste and touch.
In His love, I also find joy when He holds back His gifts to teach me – so that I might learn to hold them back from myself and thus give Him my love in return.
And so I follow Him…in the very small way He has given me.
To Him be glory.
* all quoted definitions are from online dictionaries.
(As always, comments are welcome.)