St. Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Church
872 N. 29th St. Boise, ID
an American parish of the Russian Orthodox Church
Fasting: Preparation for the Feast

From the parish bulletin of Holy New Martyrs of Russia parish in Mulino, OR.

St. John Climacus once wrote: “He who cherishes his stomach and hopes to overcome the spirit of fornication is like one who tries to put out fire with oil,” revealing to us a most power weapon against our spiritual foes.  Unless we take seriously the direction to fast, we will never conquer the world, the flesh and the devil which constantly war against us. The Holy Church has set aside specific times and rules for fasting; but to use these, we must understand what it means to fast.

Many benefits arise from fasting. First we learn how little food we actually require to sustain life. Abba Dorotheus of Gaza instructed his disciple Dositheus when he first came to the monastery to eat as much food as he wanted. Then, by degrees, St. Dorotheus reduced the food to a small fraction of that amount, and St. Dositheus thrived. Furthermore, fasting discloses our sins and weaknesses, that we may correct them. St. John Climacus says, “the mind of the faster prays soberly.” Sober prayer causes us to turn to God, as indeed we must to accomplish anything. It exposes the deceits of the evil one, and opens our minds to spiritual Truth.

The Holy Church teaches us that we are engaged in spiritual warfare throughout our lives. Just as athletes and soldiers train before their task so they may better compete and win the prize, so also our time here on earth is preparation for our souls to win the promise of salvation. Not only fasting, but prayer and the Holy Mysteries help us prepare for the great Judgement. Even more immediately, the fasts prepare us to properly celebrate and benefit from the great feasts of the church. We have many examples of the effectiveness of fasting: we know that Adam fell from Paradise through the breaking of a fast; and the city of Ninevah escaped destruction through fasting and the repentance brought by Jonah.

The fast which is now upon us is of ancient origin. Christians observed a strict fast before the feast of Theophany in honor of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan. But at the time of the great heresies which attacked the proper understanding of the Lord, the Fathers joined this fast to Christ’s Nativity, deeming essential a proper preparation for the observance of God’s becoming man. From this we see the Church instructs us in the divine virtues of humility, obedience and love, which our Lord displayed in His Nativity.

In keeping with the teaching of the Church, we learn to regenerate our lives to bring forth the Image of Christ. We abstain from all animal products, which inflame the flesh, throughout the fast; and, during the five days immediately preceding the feast, we redouble our efforts by abstaining as well from fish, wine and oil. Thus, arriving at the feast, we have lightened ourselves for the spiritual festival.

Additionally, we need to join extra prayer to our fast, in order for it to benefit us. St. John Climacus says that one who fasts without prayer “is like a man who has the idea of escaping from the sea by swimming with one hand.” Similarly, the Lord teaches us that certain demons can be cast out only by prayer and fasting. We have already seen that Ninevah’s repentance through prayer and fasting saved that city from great calamity. In the Psalms, too, we hear of King David’s spiritual struggles and their success through prayer and fasting. Indeed, throughout the history of mankind, whenever need arises, prayer and fasting are seen to quicken God’s help for us. Let us then make a special effort to attend the divine services of the Church diligently, as if our very lives depended upon it – for indeed they do.

The Lord tells us that He would have mercy from us. Even the pagan society around us realizes however dimly, that Christmas is a time to give. How much more should we Orthodox heed our Master’s commandment to give alms, food, clothing to the needy – many of whom may be found even in our own parishes? For, inasmuch as we do this for the least of them, we do this for Christ Himself. Jesus Christ was born in a cave because His mother had nowhere else to go. We, too, close our doors to Him when we neglect our duty to our neighbor. St. John Chrysostom puts this even more strongly when he tells us that we deprive the poor of their own possessions when we refuse assistance: we are guilty not just of selfishness but of theft.

Above all, the Nativity Fast is a time to “rejoice in the Lord always”, for the Nativity of Christ brings “Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace and good will among men.” How can love and peace be for from us when they become incarnate for us? If we close our hearts like Herod, we will lose this “Grace which surpasses all understanding.” The lives of the saints and our own experience reveal the truth of this. Let us open our hearts to the Holy Spirit. Let us welcome God in the flesh as did the three wise kings and many simple shepherds. Let us come to God’s house and proclaim His glory. Let us keep the fast, that we may keep festival with the Lord.