The Meaning the Great Fast: The True Meaning of Fasting (Part IV)

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,

by His Eminence Metopolitan Kallistos Ware

In rendering the body spiritual, we do not thereby dematerialize it, deprive it of its character as a physical entity. The 'spiritual' is not to be equated with the non-material, neither is the "fleshly' or carnal to be equated with the bodily. In Saint Paul's usage, 'flesh' denotes the totality of man, soul and body together, in so far as he is fallen and separated from God; and in the same way 'spirit' denotes the totality of man, soul and body together, in so far as he is redeemed and divinized by grace. Thus the soul as well as the body can become carnal and fleshly, and the body as well as the body can become spiritual. When Saint Paul enumerates the 'works of the flesh' (Gal. 5:19-21), he includes such things as sedition, heresy and envy, which involve the soul much more than the body. In making our body spiritual, then, the Lenten fast does not suppress the physical aspect of our human nature, but makes our materiality once more as God intended it to be.

Such is the way in which we interpret our abstinence from food. Bread and wine and the other fruits of the earth are gifts from God, of which we partake with reverence and thanksgiving. If Orthodox Christians from eating meat at certain times, or in some cases continually, this does not mean that the Orthodox Church is on principle vegetarian and consider meat-eating to be a sin; and if we abstain sometimes from wine, this does not mean that we uphold teetotalism. When we fast, this is not because we regard the act of eating as shameful, but in order to make all our eating spiritual, sacramental and eucharistic--no longer a concession to greed but means of communion with God the giver. So far from making us look on food as a defilement, fasting has exactly the opposite effect. Only those who have learnt to control their appetites through abstinence can appreciate the full glory and beauty of what God has given to us. To one who has eaten nothing for twenty-four hours, an olive can seem full of nourishment. A slice of plain cheese or a hardboiled egg never taste so good as on Pascha (Easter) morning, after seven weeks of fasting.

We can apply this approach also to the question of abstinence from sexual relations. It has long been the Church's teaching that during seasons of fasting married couples should try to live as brother and sister, but this does not at all signify that sexual relations within marriage are in themselves sinful. On the contrary, the Great Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete--in which, more than anywhere else in the Triodion, we find summed up the significance of Lent--states without the least ambiguity:

"Marriage is honorable, and the marriage-bed undefiled. For on both Christ has given His blessing, Eating in the flesh at the wedding in Cana, Turning water into wine and revealing His first miracle."

The abstinence of married couples, then, has as its aim not the suppression but the purification of sexuality. Such abstinence, practiced 'with mutual consent for a time', has always the positive aim, 'that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer' (1 Corinthians 7:5). Self-restraint, so far from indicating a dualist depreciation of the body, serves on the contrary to confer upon the sexual side of marriage a spiritual dimension which might otherwise be absent.

To guard against a dualist misinterpretation of the fast, the Triodion speaks repeatedly about the inherent goodness of the material creation. In the last of the services that it contains, Vespers (Esperinos) for Holy and Great Saturday, the sequence of fifteen Old Testament lessons opens with the first words of Genesis, 'In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth...': all created things are God's handiwork and as such are 'very good'. Every part of this divine creation, to the Triodion insists, joins in giving praise to the Maker:

"The hosts of heaven give Him glory; Before Him tremble cherubim and seraphim; Let everything that has breath and all creation Praise Him, bless Him, and exalt Him above all forever."

The affirmative attitude towards the material world is founded not only on the doctrine of creation but also on the doctrine of Christ. Again and again in the Triodion, the true physical reality of Christ's human nature is underlined. How, then, can the human body be evil, if God Himself in His own person assumed and divinized the body? As we state at Matins (Orthros) on the first Sunday in Lent, the Sunday of Orthodoxy:

"Thou hast not appeared to us, O Loving Lord, merely in outward semblance, As say the followers of Mani, who are enemies of God, But in the full and true reality of the flesh."

Because Christ took a true material body, so the hymns for the Sunday of Orthodoxy make clear, it is possible and, indeed, essential to depict His person in the holy icons, using wood and paint:

"The uncircumscribed Logos/Word of the Father became circumscribed, Taking flesh from thee, O Theotokos, And He has restored the sullied image to its ancient glory, Filling it with the divine beauty. This is our salvation we confess in deed and word, And we depict it in the holy icons."

"...Those who fast, so far from repudiating material things, are on the contrary assisting in their redemption. They are fulfilling the vocation assigned to the 'sons of God' by Saint Paul: 'The created universe waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God...The creation will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail until now' (Romans 8:19-22). By means of our Lenten abstinence, we seek with God's help to exercise this calling as priests of the creation, restoring all things to their primal splendor. Ascetic self-discipline, then, signifies a rejection of the world, only in so far as it is corrupted by the fall; of the body, only in so far as it is dominated by sinful passions. Lust excludes love: so long as we lust after other persons or other things, we cannot truly love them. By delivering us from lust, the fast renders us capable of genuine love. No longer ruled by the selfish desire to grasp and to exploit, we begin to see the world with the eyes of Adam in Paradise. Our self-denial is the path that leads to our self-affirmation; it is our means of entry into the cosmic liturgy whereby all things visible and invisible ascribe glory to their Creator.

(To be continued)

ON SUNDAY FEBRUARY 12th: The Sunday of the Prodigal Son (Gospel reading: St. Luke 15:11-32)

The Parable of the Prodigal forms as exact icon of repentance in its different stages. Sin is exile, enslavement to strangers, hunger. Repentance is the return from exile to our true home; it is to receive back our true inheritance and freedom in the Father's house. But repentance implies action: "I will rise up and go..." (verse 18). To repent is not just to feel dissatisfied, but to take a decision and to act upon it.

On this and the next Sundays, after the solemn and joyful words of the Polyeleos at Matins (Orthros), we add the sorrowful verses of Psalm 136, "By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept..." This Psalm of exile, sung by the children of Israel in their Babylonian captivity, has a special appropriateness on the Sunday of the Prodigal, when we call to mind our present exile in sin and make the resolve to return home. (Source: The Lenten Triodion)


The Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.


"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!"--Saint John Chrysostom


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George