‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?’
This week, Orthodox Christians are in the final week of Great Lent, a period set aside during the church year for repentance and preparation for the remembrance and celebration of Jesus Christ’s saving Passion and Resurrection (Holy Week and Pascha). It is a season marked with a call for intensifed prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. For some reason (maybe it is because we feel it in our stomachs most acutely) the subject of fasting seems to be the most discussed – lenten recipes, which days are wine and oil allowed?, how strict are we to keep the fast on which days? etc. But a good, fundamental question is asked in todays Lenten Old Testament Reading (Isaiah 58:1-12 – Orthodox Christian Lectionary). The people of Israel have asked God the question “why have we fasted?” Apparently they have kept a fast, but are confused over why God doesn’t seem to be hearing them in their distress. Isaiah responds, communicating the word of God, by saying:
“In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, And exploit all your laborers. Indeed you fast for strife and debate, And to strike with the fist of wickedness. You will not fast as you do this day, To make your voice heard on high. Is it a fast that I have chosen, A day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, And to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, And an acceptable day to the Lord? “Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free, And that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; When you see the naked, that you cover him, And not hide yourself from your own flesh?”
Ascetic labor, it seems, is never meant to be abstract or only self-focused. In fact, this type of fasting is despised by the Lord. Isaiah clearly tells us that fasting is specifically not meant to “make God take notice of us”. We are not to “afflict our souls” for the sake of afflicting them. Fasting is NOT beating oneself up or even trying to achieve something spiritually. So why have we fasted? It seems that it is necessarily connected to our neighbor. Indeed, setting aside one’s own will for the sake of another, whether that looks like remembering to pray fervently for those who have asked us, or giving up our time, treasure and talent to serve those in need, or whether it is setting aside our “plans” for an interruption that brings help and grace to another, will involve fasting and intensified prayer – sometimes we miss a meal or don’t get to keep our “schedule” when we are serving others. We certainly will pray more when we put ourselves into situations where we may be quite unsure about how to help – our feeling of powerlessness is just the place where faith in God to act can truly begin.
All Christians are called to fast. For Orthodox Christians, this fasting rule is intensified during Great Lent, which, as I am writing this, is now in its final week, as we look ahead to Holy Week. This is a good moment to ask the question: “Why have we fasted?” Has our fasting been connected to love and service of others, or has it slipped into becoming an abstract “spiritual” exercise? Have we fasted because we think (even secretly, in our hearts) that it is somehow gaining “favor” with God? Have we argued about the fast, or judged others who we deem to not be keeping it strictly enough? These are important questions to ask, because there is clearly a fasting that is from God and a fasting that is not. There are always two ways, in everything, it seems. The way to life and the way to death. Fasting is the same. Fasting that is self-focused, abstract, and centered on “achievement” leads to pride, judgment of others, isolation of ourselves, and ultimately the despair of realizing that we really can’t achieve anything on our own. Fasting as God commands gets us out of our own “heads” and opens our hearts to the needs of those around us. We will learn to pray in the midst of being alongside the poor, the lonely, the sad, and the hungry (spiritually and physically). We will set aside our appetites and luxuries when we give our time to praying and helping others. Most importantly, it will be God-centered – acknowledging that it is God who works, in us and in those we serve – we do not need to “prove” anything to God, we need only be faithful, each day, and He will give us the great honor of participating in His work, His life – what else is there, then to “achieve” in this life?
The Good News is, that while the consequences of self-focused fasting is certainly severe, the fruit of God-centered fasting is abundant! The Prophet Isaiah tells us:
“Then your light shall break forth like the morning, Your healing shall spring forth speedily, And your righteousness shall go before you; The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; You shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ “If you take away the yoke from your midst, The pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, If you extend your soul to the hungry And satisfy the afflicted soul, Then your light shall dawn in the darkness, And your darkness shall be as the noonday.”
Let us embrace the true spirit of the fast, even as we complete our Lenten journey on the way to Our Lord’s saving Passion and Resurrection. Let us walk with Him as He accomplishes the work of salvation by giving Himself for the life of the world. Let it be a reminder and encouragement to us to follow His example of selfless love, that we might participate in bringing that same light to all we encounter.