The Meaning of the Great Fast (Part II)

Virginmartyr Martha in Egypt

Virginmartyr Martha in Egypt

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

by His Eminence Metropolitan Kallistos Ware

The True Nature of Fasting

Lenten abstinence gives us the saving self-dissatisfaction of the Publican (St. Luke 18:10-13). Such is the function of the hunger and the tiredness: to make us 'poor in spirit', aware of our helplessness and of our dependence on God's aid.

Yet it would be misleading to speak only of this element of weariness and hunger. Abstinence leads, not merely to this, but also to a sense of lightness, wakefulness, freedom and joy. Even if the fast proves debilitating at first, afterwards we find that it enables us to sleep less, to think more clearly, and to work more decisively. As many doctors acknowledge, periodical fasts contribute to bodily hygiene. While involving genuine self-denial, fasting does not seek to do violence to our body but rather to restore it to health and equilibrium. Most of us in the Western world habitually eat more than we need. Fasting liberates our body from the burden of excessive weight and makes it a willing partner in the task of prayer, alert and responsive to the voice of the Spirit.

It will be noted that in common Orthodox usage the words 'fasting' and 'abstinence' are employed interchangeably. In the Orthodox Church a clear-cut distinction is not made between the two words. During Lent there is frequently a limitation on the number of meals eaten each day, but when a meal is permitted there is no restriction on the amount of food allowed. The Holy Fathers simply state, as a guiding principle, that we should never eat to satiety but always rise from the table feeling that we could have taken more and that we are now ready for prayer.

It is important not to overlook the physical requirements of fasting, it is even more important not to overlook its inward significance. True fating is not a mere matter of diet. It is moral as well as physical. True fasting is to be converted in heart and will; it is to return to God, to come home life the Prodigal son to our Father's house. In the words of Saint John Chrysostom, it means "abstinence not only from food but from sins." "The fast," he insists, "should be kept not by the mouth alone but also by the eye, the ear, the feet, the hands and all the members of the body": the eye must abstain from impure sights, the ear of malicious gossip, the hands from acts of injustice. It is useless to fast from food, protests Saint Basil, and yet to indulge in cruel criticism and slander: "You do not eat mean, but you devour your brother." The same point is made in the Triodion, especially during the first week of Holy Lent:

As we fast from food, let us abstain also from every passion...

Let us observe a fast acceptable and pleasing to the Lord.
True fasting is to put away all evil,
To control the tongue, to forbear from anger,
To abstain from lust, slander, falsehood and perjury.
If we renounce these things, then is our fasting true and acceptable to God.
Let us keep the Fast not only by refraining from food,
But by becoming strangers to all the bodily passions. (Vespers for Sunday evening Sunday of Forgiveness)

The inner significance of fasting is best summed up in the triad: prayer, fasting, almsgiving (charity). Divorced from prayer and from the reception of the Holy Mysteries (Sacrament), unaccompanied by acts of compassion, our fasting becomes pharisaical or even demonic. It leads, not to contrition and joyfulness, but to pride, inward tension and irritability. The link between prayer and fasting is rightly indicated by Father Alexander Elchaninov. A critic of fasting says to him: "Our work suffers and we become irritable...I have never seen servants [in pre-revolutionary Russia] so bad tempered as during the last days of Holy Week. Clearly, fasting has a very bad effect on the nerves.' To this Father Alexander replies: 'You are quite right...If it is not accompanied by prayer and an increased spiritual life, it merely leads to a heightened state of irritability. It is natural that servants who took their fasting seriously and who were forced to work hard during Lent, while not being allowed to go to church, were angry and irritable.'

Fasting, then, is valueless or even harmful when not combined with prayer. In the Gospel the devil is cast out, not by fasting alone, but by "prayer and fasting" (St. Matthew 17:21; St. Mark 9:29); and of the early Christians it is said, not simply that they fasted, but that they "fasted and prayed" (Acts 13:3; compare 14:23). In both the Old and the New Testament fasting is seen, not as an end in itself, but as an aid to more intense and living prayer, as a preparation for decisive action or for direct encounter with God. Thus our Lord's forty-day fast in the wilderness was the immediate preparation for his public ministry (St. Matthew 4:1-11). When Moses fasted on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:28) and Elijah on Mount Horeb (3 [1] Kgs. 19:8-12), the fast was in both cases linked with a theophany. The same connection between fasting and the vision of God's is evident in the case of Saint Peter (Acts 10:9-17). He "went up on the housetop to pray about the sixth hour, and he became very hungry and wanted to eat"; and it was in this state that he fell into a trance and heard the divine voice. Such is always the purpose of ascetic fasting--to enable us, as the Triodion puts it, to "draw near to the mountain of prayer."

Prayer and fasting should in their turn be accompanied by almsgiving--by love for others expressed in practical form, by works of compassions and forgiveness. Eight days before the opening of the Lenten fast, on the Sunday of the Last Judgment, the appointed Gospel is the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (St. Matthew 25:31-46), reminding us that the criterion in the coming Judgment (the Final Judgment), will not be the strictness of our fasting but the amount of help that we have given to those in need.

(To be continued)


The parable of the Prodigal son forms an 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 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 make a decision and to act upon it.

On this and the next two Sundays, after the solemn and joyful words of the Polyeleos at Orthros (Matins), 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