Fasting in the Orthodox Church

Once, somebody ask Father Paisios, “how can we get the greatest benefit, the greatest gift when receiving Holy Communion?” The holy monk answered, “it could not be in consuming a greater volume of Holy Communion because the priests drink the whole chalice at the end of liturgy and clearly their benefit is no different to ours, so it must be in the preparation we engage in before receiving it”.

This preparation is in prayer and fasting, in confessing our sins and in charitable works. When we do these things in the correct spirit, we take on the form of the Lord Jesus himself and we taste Paradise.

Fasting was practiced by the Lord Himself. After prayer and fasting for forty days in the wilderness, the Lord victoriously faced the temptations of the devil (Matthew 4:1-­11). The Lord himself asked the disciples to use fasting as an important spiritual weapon to achieve spiritual victories (Matthew 17:21; Mark 9:29; Luke 2:37). The example of the Lord was followed by His disciples (Acts 14:23; 27:9; 1 Corinthians 7:5; 2 Corinthians 6:5, 11:27, etc.).

What is fasting? Why is it so important? Why does fasting precede such important feasts such as Easter and Christmas?

St. Basil tells us that fasting is not only abstaining from food; it is first of all, abstaining from sin. The Church in its hymnology describes fasting as the mother of chastity and prudence, as the accuser of sin and as the advocate of repentance, the life worthy of angels and the salvation of humans. Fasting becomes all of these when observed in the proper spirit.

First of all, fasting is abstinence from food. By detaching us from earthly goods and realities, fasting has a liberating effect on us making us more able to have a life of the spirit, a life similar to that of angels. Second, fasting, as abstinence from bad habits and sin, is the mother of Christian virtues, the mother of sound and wholesome thinking. So fasting from food and from sin allows us to establish the proper priority between the material and spiritual, giving priority to the spiritual.

Thus, fasting is a means of salvation.

Because of the liberating effect of fasting, both material and spiritual, the Church has connected fasting with the celebration of the major feasts of our tradition. Easter is, of course, our main feast. We also fast in preparation for Christmas, Epiphany, the Dormition and other days. It is most appropriate to prepare for these celebrations through a liberating fast, both material and spiritual. This is the profound meaning that fasting takes during the Great Lent. We allow ourselves to take advantage of the spiritual riches of the Church. We use these spiritual weapons, “to fight the good fight, to walk the way of fasting, to crush the heads of the invisible dragons, to prove ourselves victorious over sin, and without condemnation to reach our goal of worshiping the Holy Resurrection” (Prayer of the Pre-sanctified Liturgy).

This is the challenge of the Great Lent: to use fasting to obtain the resurrected life, to unite with the Risen Lord. Who could refuse to accept this challenge?