Two men sat down to dinner on a Friday in Lent. The first dutifully observed the rule of no meat and helped himself to a decadent lobster thermidor in a white wine sauce. The second looked into his refrigerator, found the scraps of last Sunday’s chicken, and cooked the feet. The first finished his meal with a full stomach, pleased with himself that he had kept the fast. The second wondered to himself whether he had violated the fast as he gnawed the gangly bits of meat and cartilage from the claw-ended bones, but decided that it was too late and finished his stringy meal. He would go to bed with his stomach craving more sustenance.
Which of these men better kept the fast?
Fasting is one of the greatest means God has provided us for mortifying our own bodies and emptying our soul for His grace. Those of us in the Western world likely benefit from the practice than anyone else. We who have no shortage of food, we who do not worry about there being nothing in our markets, we who have access to nearly any food we wish to eat, we who fret when our order at a restaurant is ever-so-slightly below our expectations, we who have an epidemic of obesity while half the world starves, we need this practice more than we realize.
Even those of us who keep the letter of the fast often do it wrong and fail to understand its purpose (and I am as guilty as anyone else). When Ash Wednesday comes we complain that we are required to give up meat for a mere one day a week! When the fasting day comes we think of what special gourmet fish dish we will try this time as we sip our wine and save room for our dessert brownie. If we follow an Eastern fast, sometimes our “fasting” takes the form of a mere diet, a somewhat Christianized form of Kosher or Halal. In all these cases the spirit of the fast is lost. We are focused on our own miniscule physical pangs and fail to see the greater goal, the spiritual nourishment that is meant to replace the filling of our bellies.
O, fools and weaklings that we are! Can we not see that soon Christ will be born in a cave in Bethlehem and dwell among us? Have we forgotten that in several weeks He will crush death itself by His glorious Resurrection? Why are we so averse to sacrifice so little when He spent forty days in the desert without food and underwent a brutal death for our salvation? Have we forgotten the following words of Christ?
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.’ How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; and whoever swears by the sanctuary, swears by it and by the one who dwells in it; and whoever swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by the one who is seated upon it.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
Few of us are called to be hesychasts or hermits of the desert, but that does not mean that we must remain drowned in our decadence. Simply put, the current minimal fasting rule (Fridays in Lent and Advent, Ash Wednesday, and Good Friday) is nothing. It is meant to give us an entry point for fasting and teach us the concept. It is meant only for children and catechumens.
There should never be one universal “fasting rule” that everyone follows with exactitude. Some are ready for a monastic rule, some are still coping with sacrificing their hamburgers on Fridays, and many others are somewhere in between (whether they realize it or not). Everyone should fast to whatever point they are able and then seek to continuously improve, whether they are those with the thousand denarii or those with but one drachma.
Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them all. – Romans 14:3
Let us not deceive ourselves. We will fall short, we will eventually succumb to that one food that makes our mouths salivate, and we will consider falling back or giving up. We must never surrender to the last of these three temptations. Should a man who struggles with a particular sin relax his watch on that sin? Does a besieged force of troops neglect the part of their defenses that is weak? When a man falls down he must rise again. When Christ fell under the crushing weight of His cross, He got back up to his feet.
Do not kill yourself, but fast until it hurts. When it stops hurting, fast harder. Perhaps you will never make it to the level of an Athonite monk (I doubt I ever will in my lifetime), but there is nothing wrong with making the attempt.
Above all else, let us never lose sight of why we fast. It is not to glorify our own bodies. It is not to congratulate ourselves over what penance we are capable. It is meant to strengthen or fortitude so that by resisting that which is lawful and pleasurable, we may learn to better resist that which is unlawful and still pleasurable. If we become Pharisees who boast of our feats then our hunger is for nothing and our glory will be in our shame. For it is not enough to merely empty our stomachs; we must also prepare our souls to be filled.
For inspiration let us look to the icon of St. Mary of Egypt! Gaze upon the skin that clings to her ribcage, the hair turned white, and the thin arms. But remember why she went into the desert in the first place. See where her eyes look; not to her emaciated body, not to her hungry stomach, but to the greater prize.
Our churches need more iconography of the ghastly and emaciated St. Mary of Egypt
With that in mind, let us fast joyously this Advent season! The Messiah comes to redeem the world. The hour of our salvation is at hand.