The True Nature of Fasting

This past week I decided to read the Introduction to the Lenten Triodion, a book used when we put together our services during the weeks leading up to and through Great Lent. It is where we get our hymnography for these special services, scripture reading assignments and more. I’ve used this book for years when helping put the choir books together but I’ve never read the Introduction. It is pretty incredible. As I’ve read I’ve found a deep joy in approaching the fast. Let me share some points from this Introduction that is titled, The True Nature of Fasting.

“We waited, and at last our expectations were fulfilled”, writes the Serbian Bishop Nikolai of Ochrid, describing the Easter service at Jerusalem. “When the Patriarch sang, ‘Christ is risen’, a heavy burden fell from our souls. We felt as if we also had been raised from the dead. All at once, from all around, the same cry resounded like the noise of many waters. ‘Christ is risen’ sang the Greeks, the Russians, the Arabs, the Serbs, the Copts, the Armenians, the Ethiopians—one after another, each in his own tongue, in his own melody…Coming out from the service at dawn, we began to regard everything in the light of the glory of Christ’s Resurrection, and all appeared different from what it had yesterday; everything seemed better, more expressive, more glorious. Only in the light of the Resurrection does life receive meaning.”

Lenten Triodion, Introduction by Kallistos Ware

How lovely! How beautiful! He describes my feelings exactly, my inspiration for this blog! As I’ve read this paragraph over and over I have to admit I wanted to add something in the sentence where he says, “‘Christ is risen’ sang the Greeks, the Russians, the Arabs, the Serbs, the Copts, the Armenians, the Ethiopians”, and the Americans!

Continuing, he says…

This sense of resurrection joy, so vividly described by Bishop Nikolai, forms the foundation of all the worship of the Orthodox Church; it is the one and only basis for our Christian life and hope. Yet, in order for us to experience the full power of this Paschal rejoicing, each of us needs to pass through a time of preparation. ‘We waited, ‘says Bishop Nikolai, ‘and at last our expectations were filled.’ Without this waiting, without this expectant preparation, the deeper meaning of the Easter celebration will be lost.

This post isn’t really supposed to be about the rules of fasting or the basic why’s of fasting in as much as it is suppose to be about the joys of fasting but this one section I must share. Met. Kallistos Ware does go into the history of fasting and why it started but then says…

The primary aim of fasting is to make us conscious of our dependence on God. If practiced seriously, the Lenten abstinence from food-particularly in the opening days- involves a considerable measure of real hunger, and also a feeling of tiredness and physical exhaustion. The purpose of this is to lead us in turn to a sense of inward brokenness and contrition; to bring us, that is, to the point where we appreciate the full force of Christ’s statement, “Without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). If we always take our fill of food and drink, we easily grow over-confident in our own abilities, acquiring a false sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency. The observance of a physical fast undermines this sinful complacency. Stripping from us the specious assurance of the Pharisee-who fasted, it is true, but not in the right spirit- Lenten abstinence gives us the saving self-dissatisfaction of the Publican (Luke 18-10-13). Such is the function of the hunger and the tiredness: to make us “poor in spirit”, aware of our helplessness and of our dependence on God’s aid.

Lenten Triodion, Met. Kallistos Ware

Everything makes much more sense to me now. Met. Kallistos Ware helped me to understand the deeper meaning of the fast like I’ve not really understood before. I’m so grateful for this understanding and felt it worth sharing with you.

Yet it would be misleading to speak only of this element of weariness and hunger. Abstinence leads, not merely to this, but also to a sense of lightness, wakefulness, freedom and joy. Even if the fast proves debilitating at first, afterward we find that it enables us to sleep less, to think more clearly, and to work more decisively.

Met. Kallistos Ware–emphasis mine

It leads to JOY! Even if at first we struggle, we feel SO tired and hungry…even hangry. It will give way to joy! Freedom and joy! We need to persevere. I have to admit fasting to the fullest extent of the prescribed fast is something I’ve not been very good at. I struggle to get past that “hangry” part. But this! This truly brings me hope and inspiration. To reach freedom and joy I need to persevere. By the grace of God we can do anything.

Just persevere, Susan! For joy!

Finally, Met. Kallistos Ware shares five misconceptions about the Lenten fast which we should guard against…the 4th is worth sharing on the Kindler of Joy blog.

In the fourth place, paradoxical though it may seem, the period of Lent is a time not of gloom but of joyfulness. It is true that fasting brings us to repentance and to grief for sin, but this penitent grief, in the vivid phrase of St. John Climacus, is a “joy-creating sorrow”. The Triodion deliberately mentions both tears and gladness in a single sentence:

Grant me tears falling as the rain from heaven, O Christ, As I keep this joyful day of the fast.

-It is remarkable how frequently the themes of joy and light recur in the texts for the first day of Lent:

With joy let us enter upon the beginning of the Fast. Let us not be of sad countenance…

Let us joyfully begin the all-hallowed season of abstinence; and let us shine with the bright radiance of the holy commandments…

All mortal life is but one day, so it is said, to those who labor with love. There are forty days in the Fast; let us keep them all with joy!

Come, let us set out with JOY!

If interested the entire Introduction of the Lenten Triodion can be read here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.