In case you haven’t looked a calendar recently, you might be surprised to know that we’re now half way through Lent – the most sacred time of year during which Orthodox Christians prepare to celebrate and relive Christ’s death on the cross, His burial in a tomb, and ultimately His resurrection from the dead.
And since we’re at the half way point, it’s probably a good time to remind ourselves of why we’re doing what we’re doing. It’s usually during the middle of any race that you find yourself questioning what you’re doing… and why you’re doing it… and contemplating whether or not you can make it to the finish line.
So why do we fast for Lent? I mean really…why do we really fast? Why is fasting such a big deal in our church and we do place SOOO much emphasis on it?
If we’re honest, most of us have no idea why we fast. We know we need to fast, but the reasons we’re given often leave us unsatisfied and unfulfilled.
We’re told we need to fast for self-discipline, but what if I’m already a disciplined person? Do I still need to fast? We’re told that we need to “overcome our flesh” – but is that really true? What does that even mean? Does that mean my body is bad and I need to punish it by fasting somehow?
Is all this fasting hoopla really done as some kind of spiritual self-help? Fast and you’ll be more disciplined… fast and you’ll overcome your flesh. Is that really what this is all about?
You’ll be happy to learn that the answer is NO!
Of course self-discipline is a good thing and of course we need to submit our fleshly desires to our spiritual desires; I am not saying those things aren’t important.
But what I’m saying is that those are not the PRIMARY purpose of our fasting. Our fasting is not done primarily for the sake of bettering ourselves; that may be a byproduct, but it certainly doesn’t match what our spiritual forefathers – the ones who instructed us to fast during Lent – taught us as the primary purpose of our fasting.
So why do we fast during Lent?
Just yesterday, Fr. Athanasius Farag – a Coptic Orthodox priest serving in East Rutherford, NJ and a personal mentor of mine – opened my eyes to an aspect of fasting that I had never considered before. He spoke based on the writing of a great theologian and bishop from the 7th century named Isaac the Syrian, who wrote the following:
And the Saviour also, when He manifested Himself to the world in the Jordan, began at this point. For after His baptism the Spirit led Him into the wilderness and He fasted for forty days and forty nights. Likewise all who set out to follow in His footsteps make the beginning of their struggle upon this foundation. For this is a weapon forged by God, and who shall escape blame if he neglects it? And if the Lawgiver Himself fasts, who among those who keep the law has no need of fasting?
He starts by saying that we fast for 40 days during Lent because Christ Himself fasted for 40 days. He was baptized in the Jordan River, went to the wilderness for 40 days of fasting, during which time He was tempted by the devil.
St. Isaac continues:
This is why the human race knew no victory before fasting, and the devil had never experienced defeat from our nature; but this weapon has made him powerless from the outset. Our Lord was the firstborn Leader of victory, so as to set the first crown of victory upon the head of our nature. When the devil, that foe and tyrant, sees a man bearing this weapon, he is straightway frightened and he recollects and considers that defeat which he suffered in the wilderness at the hands of the Saviour; at once his strength is shattered and the very sight of this weapon, given us by our Commander-in-chief, burns him.
Did you catch that? That’s deep stuff (you may want to read it again).
The reason we fast is because fasting is part of our salvation! It is the means by which Christ defeated Satan in the wilderness. Our Lord came face to face with Satan and used the weapon of fasting to defeat Him. And when the devil sees us bearing the same weapon of fasting, “he is straightway frightened” and “his strength is shattered” and “the very sight of this weapon [fasting], given us by our Commander-in-chief, burns him.”
BOOM! Down goes the devil! And he’s down for the count! Why? Because he got hit by the weapon of fasting – not our fasting, but the fasting of Christ Himself that we participate in through our fasting.
Go back to man’s very first encounter with the devil – back in the Garden of Eden. There, Satan defeated man by persuading him to break the first command given by God – a command to fast. Adam let go of this weapon of fasting and thereby was defeated by Satan. But when the Second Adam came into the world (Jesus Christ), He defeated the devil by His fasting in the wilderness.
“Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan!... Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.” (Matthew 4:10-11)
Jesus shows us the true meaning and true purpose of fasting. He didn’t fast because He needed self-discipline or to “overcome His flesh” – He fasted for the same reason He did everything else on this earth…to save us from our sins. That’s why during the one of the hymns of this Lenten period, we say “Jesus Christ who fasted on our behalf, forty days and forty nights, until He saved us from our sins.”
Why did Jesus fast? To save us from our sins.
Why do we fast? To participate in Christ’s saving act for our sake.
Look at it this way. We all agree that Jesus died for us and for our salvation. But in order to participate in that salvation, we must die with Him. His death is our death. Likewise, His resurrection is our resurrection and we participate in that act as well.
In the same manner, He fasted on our behalf, to save us from our sins, and we fast in order to participate in His fasting. His fasting therefore becomes our fasting and His victory over the devil becomes our victory over the devil.
That, my brothers and sisters, is why we fast.
For discussion: I’d love to hear your thoughts, comments or questions on this subject so don’t be afraid to leave a comment. Let’s learn from one another.