Why do we fast in the Orthodox Church?

Why do we fast in the Orthodox Church?

Dr Dimitri Kepreotes

Why do we fast in the Orthodox Church?

“Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” (Matthew 6:16-18)

Why do we fast in the Orthodox Church?
The answer is very simple. We fast because Christ fasted!

Our Lord fasted for 40 days in the desert.
And we will fast for 40 days. Sarakosti, the Greek word for Lent, simply means 40.

Did Christ need to fast?
Not really, but in doing so, He gave an example to us.

In the Gospel passage we read on Sunday morning, Christ says “when you fast,” not “if you fast.”

Today, in 2021, it seems that the Orthodox Christians are the only Christians who retain this discipline of spiritual life regularly and for any extended period of time. In saying this, there is no intention to boast at all. It is only mentioned as a sign of faithfulness to the Christian heritage that was received from the very beginning.

Fasting does not make us any better than the person next to us. It is only meant to make us better than the person we once were.

Many benefits of fasting could be listed – spiritual and even physical benefits. We don’t need to list them here, as all the Saints, all the Fathers and Mothers of the Church, have constantly affirmed the importance of this practice throughout 20 centuries.

Yesterday was called Clean Monday (Καθαρά Δευτέρα) not because we cleaned our homes, but because we will start to clean our inner selves.

In Greece, on Clean Monday – not on any other day – people have the nice custom of flying kites. It is as if this symbolises the need to look upwards, to lift our thoughts above earth, right at the outset of this important period of the year.

Fasting not only has to do with food; it is equally about cutting certain bad habits, such as judging, gossiping and envying.

So, we can fast not only according to what goes in our mouth, but equally by what comes out of it. We can also fast with our eyes, our ears and our very thoughts. That is what it means to be vigilant, to pay attention to what we are really doing with our lives, and with what motives.

As one or two Fathers have stated with some humour: “You don’t eat meat, but you eat the butcher!” In other words, what is the good of abstaining from meat if we are going to ‘eat’ another person through our words and behaviour?

We therefore see that the physical discipline of fasting has a spiritual side as well.

St Basil the Great says that fasting assists our repentance and our movement towards God.

And St Paisios adds that no one gets to heaven with their legs crossed! That is to say, we have to be people who put faith into action.

We may eat less for a period of time, so that we can feed more on God’s Word. We might speak a little less, so as to hear the whisper of God’s voice.

And while we serve plainer food, we will save time for more important things.

We will also remember that the more we strive now, the more joy we will feel when we arrive at Pascha, the great feast of the Resurrection of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Let us not see this time of the year as a burden. We see Great Lent not as a set of new rules to follow, but as a chance to grow in our love for God.

Let us take advantage of this special time. There are tools that the Church gives to strengthen us, such as Services that take place only in this period:

  • every Friday evening there are the Salutations (Χαιρετισμοί της Παναγίας), when we give thanks to the Mother of God for her unique role in our salvation;
  • there is the Great Compline (Μέγα Απόδειπνο);
  • there are also the Pre-Sanctified Divine Liturgies that take place mid-week, often in the evening.

Whatever we do, we do joyfully, not by force, but only for the love of God.

As the journey is towards the Feast of the Resurrection, it is this destination that we must keep firmly in sight. The more attention we give to the spiritual life now, the more joy we will feel then.

Do we remember that the Apostles were in fact criticised for their stance on these matters? However, Christ came to their defence:  “Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.’” (Matt. 9:14-15)

That is yet another basis for fasting that is directly from Holy Scripture.

When these 40 days are over, we will enter Holy Week. On the first three evenings of Holy Week (Palm Sunday, Monday and Tuesday), we will hear the Service of the Bridegroom (Ακολουθία του Νυμφίου) and chant “Behold the Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night...” We just saw that Christ referred to Himself as the Bridegroom.

The Service underlines the idea that the Bridegroom will return to meet us. It reminds us of the Second Coming (or our passing from this life, if that happens first), which will be unexpected.

During Holy Week, therefore, we are spiritually ‘caught ̓ - in a good way - between the historical Passion of Christ and His glorious Second Coming. Caught, that is, between what has happened and what is to come.

Now we are in the Engagement period, faithful to the One we are betrothed to. The Church is the Bride who waits to be joined to the Bridegroom. Christ had likened the future Kingdom of Heaven to a wedding feast. What more joyful image could possibly have been chosen!

Through his Commentary on the Gospel according to St Matthew (chapter 9), St John Chrysostom presented, in the most beautiful terms, a portrayal of Christ and His relationship with us all.

Delivered from the perspective of Christ, this is exactly the voice we wish to keep firmly in our hearts and minds, as we travel through the current period of fasting towards the feast of feasts:
I am your father,
I am your brother,
your bridegroom.
Everything you want, I am.
You have need for nothing.
I will work for you,
I have come to serve and not be served. I am your friend,
I am your mother,
I am all things.
Only abide in Me.
I have died for you,
been rejected for you,
placed on the Cross for you.
I am before the Father for you.
You are everything to Me:
My brother, my sister
My friend,
A part of me
What more can you want?

May we all have a blessed Great Lent – Καλή Σαρακοστή!

This sermon was delivered by Dr Dimitri Kepreotes on Cheesefare Sunday at St Sophia & Three Daughters Greek Orthodox Church.

Guest Contributor

This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor