Soul Food: The Great Lenten Fast

The Rev. Dr. Robert J. Laws, III

“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood…” St. Paul

Many Christians from across various Catholic and Protestant traditions observe in some fashion the season of Lent- the forty day season of penitential preparation for the celebration of our greatest Feast, the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The Lenten fast is the most solemn and longest period of abstinence in the Church’s calendar, and it is marked by fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. The forty days of the season are patterned after the forty days Jesus fasted in the wilderness after his baptism, in preparation for the inauguration of his public ministry. Like Jesus, Mother Church calls us to a season of more intentional prayer and fasting, so that we may prepare our hearts to celebrate the paschal feast.

The actual practice of fasting varies from place to place, depending on one’s Christian Tradition, culture, history, etc. The Orthodox are asked to observe the strictest fast, which is basically a plant based diet for Lent. The Orthodox also fast from the Holy Eucharist during weekdays in Lent, because they see the Holy Eucharist as a paschal mystery of our communion with the Risen Lord. Roman Catholic and Anglican fasting practices vary, but generally the faithful are asked to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and to observe Wednesdays and Fridays as days of special abstinence in which one does not eat meat. Many Christians additionally “give up” some pleasure as a small extended fast during the Lenten season. Just as physical exercise strengthens the body, absitence, fasting, and self-denial strenthen one’s will, so that it is more and more conformed to the will of God in Christ Jesus.[1]

Fasting is an important practice which pacifies our sinful desires and awakens the desire to live a life of repentance and holiness, by which we are able to grow closer to God. But, our Lenten fast is not meant to be some Pharisaical burden which shows others how pious we are. The Holy Scriptures and Sacred Tradition enjoin us to fast; but, not for the sake of demonstrating some perceived vein of sanctity. Jesus was clear in his instructions to his disciples regarding fasting:

Whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)

Fasting is not an end unto itself. Fasting is a form of spiritual warfare, which strengthens us to resist those evils in the world which draw us away from God. Fasting is spiritual food which nourishes the soul so that it may be more receptive to the transforming grace of God. Fasting is medicine for the soul, healing the soul from the wounds inflicted by sin, and preparing the soul to receive the very life of God. Our fasting is to be an intentional means of growing from grace to grace in love and holiness, done in secret before God alone, who seeing the desire of our hearts to grow closer to Him, will reward us with the fruit of repentance and the grace of a holy life rooted in love and charity.

Fasting is an essential practice in the Christian life, and yet a holy fast is more than simply abstaining from food. We abstain from food so that we may feed on the true food which nourishes the soul- that spiritual nourishment which is consumed by prayer and meditation on the Holy Scriptures, and by the faithful reception of the Holy Eucharist. Moreover, fasting from food is but an outward sign of the truer inner fast to which we are called: the fast from sin. “The benefit of fasting,” teaches Saint Basil the Great, “is not limited by the abstinence of food alone, because true fasting is the eradication of evil deeds… You don’t eat meat, but you hurt your brother … A true fast is the elimination of evil, restraint of what one says, suppression of anger, malignant gossip, lies, and perjury. Abstinence from all these is true fasting.” [2]

True fasting, then, eradicates evil by removing the inclination in our hearts to sin. It motivates us to works of mercy, love and charity. It restores our desire to be good to our neighbor, to gladden the hearts of our brothers and sisters by sharing our time with them and by giving ourselves to them in attentive and loving care. What good is it for us to fast from meat and not allow the Holy Spirit to open within our hearts the fountain of charity, overflowing in good deeds to others? It is these very good works, accompanied by prayer and fasting, which prepare our souls to receive the transforming grace of God.

This loving and caring attention to our brother and sisters trains us, then, to be mercifully attentive to the stranger in need. The prophet, calling the people of God to turn to God in repentance, urged them to practice a fast in which self denial leads to humble service to others. Is not the fast that God desires, he wrote,

to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
     and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
     and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
[3]

What good is it to withold food from ourselves, and not learn to share our food with the hungry? What benefit is it to deny oursleves, and not learn that humility is the path to raising up others? What good are our prayers, if we do not open our ears to hear the cries of poor, open out eyes to see the naked and hungry, open our hands to share what God has given us with them, and open our mouths to decry their oppression by the forces of evil in the world?

The true goal of fasting is to subdue our selfish appetites, so that freed by God’s grace from our enslavement to our sinful wills, we may begin, like the Blessed Mother of God, to say YES to every request God makes of us- so that as obedient children, we may begin to live lives of compassion and charity which reflect the compassion of God which has rescued us from the darkness of sin, and “brought us to the Kingdom of his Son, in whom we have redemption-the forgiveness of sins.”[4]

By God’s grace, may we all strive during this holy season of Lent to deny what we would desire in preference of what others might desire, to learn to be generous with others, to give of our time in loving presence to those we love, to offer love to our brothers and sisters with attentive care, to break the yoke of oppression from the poor, to share our bread with the hungry, to pray for our enemies, and to forgive those who have injured us. This is the true fast that God asks of us. This is the spiritual warfare which will enable us to conquer the forces of sin which try to turn us away from God. This is the remedy which will heal all the injuries of our souls.


References:

[1]     Colossians 3:1-2; Titus 2:12; Luke9:23

[2]    St.Basil the Great in “Lent: A Spiritual Spring of the Soul,” Alexander Mileant, from MISSIONARY LEAFLET 3 E ( Los Angeles: Holy Protection Russian Orthodox Church, 1997), p.3.

[3]    Isaiah 58:6-7

[4]    Colossians 1:13-14

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