The Orthodox Church has steadfastly maintained the ancient Christian tradition of a forty-day vegan fast before the feast of the Resurrection of Christ. Is this really necessary? Does God actually care if we eat meat or not? How does this relate to the heart or authenticity of our personhood? For that matter, why do we fast at all?
Our Orthodox Faith is a faith that values beauty in its icons, architecture, vestments, etc., and its use of all the elements of the world in its worship, such as flowers, branches and palms. We believe that God is truly present in our churches and not exiled to heaven. Our worship therefore mirrors the glory of the heavenly worship. This fact in no way contradicts the fact that we are an ascetic Church, a Church that values fasting. In fact, it's because of it.
In Orthodoxy, asceticism and beauty go hand in hand. We cannot have one properly without the other. We need asceticism to see the beauty and glory of the world in its proper, divine light; seeing the world in a purely utilitarian (and thus egotistical and enclosed) manner can only show it in a distorted or shadowed light. At the same time, we need beauty and glory to see the proper goal of fasting and asceticism: our transformation in Christ and the Spirit.
The common goal of fasting and asceticism is to heal our disordered desires and habits, thereby restoring our self-control and health of soul and body. In other words, it reestablishes the rule of the soul over the body. Similarly, the purpose of the beauty and glory in the world and in Orthodox churches is to heal us by inspiring us with glory of God and our own dignity, thereby "setting our affections on things above" (Col 3:2). The beauty of the world, the glory of Orthodox worship, and our ascetic practices thereby all have the same goal: they are aids to our becoming like Christ, conformed to Him and prepared to participate in His glory, a glory of the Resurrection which follows the Cross. Orthodoxy is an all-encompassing faith of healing that integrates all aspects of our human life and existence — body/soul, mind/heart, solitude/community — in order to bring them to Christ and fill them with the power of the Holy Spirit. It sees man as he really is: glorious, because of the image of God; pathetic, because fallen, subject to sin and death. Our goal is to trade the latter for the former. But the aspects of human life are all interwoven. The soul cannot change without the body, the mind without the heart, the individual without the community, and vice versa. Hence we have fasting as a means of spiritual growth, bodily healing and ecclesial unity.
Because they have our healing and our glory as their goal, the Church's fasting periods are also periods of joy. How can we but rejoice, when we free ourselves from so many things that dominate us? For this reason the Church calls Lent the period of "bright sadness" or "joy-making mourning." It is a joy of renewal. Our hymns repeat this theme: "With great gladness let us accept the proclamation of the Fast." The idea is wholly Biblical: "The fast of the fourth month ... shall be joy and gladness and cheerful feasts for the house of Judah. Therefore, love truth and peace" (Zach 8:19). Our Lord Himself commanded us not to be of “sad countenance" while fasting but to wash our faces and anoint our heads (Mt 6:16). The period of fasting is not a period of gloom and of being morose but of hope that things can be better through a healing change. Therefore it is a period of light, energy and inner renewal. All Christians who keep the fast experience this power.
The examples of fasting in the Bible are too numerous to list here. Suffice it to say that after every serious fast, God manifested His presence. Moses, Elijah, David, Job, Daniel, the people (and animals) of Ninevah, Anna the prophetess, John the Baptist, the Holy Apostles (most especially Paul), Cornelius, and of course, our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, all fasted in a serious manner, to be met by God's presence immediately afterwards. Fasting unlocks the spiritual powers of the soul and makes it receptive to an encounter with the Living God.
Eating is our most human way of connecting with the world. We have no choice but to breathe air and drink water. Eating however is a choice and therefore involves the soul in decision making; in other words, eating includes a mind-over body element. Hence when we conquer our will to eat (not eating what we want to eat) out of love for the will of the Church (which is from the Holy Spirit), we de facto gather strength of soul as we participate in an act of communion with the will of God and the entire Church. Through this we grow spiritually. This was the purpose of God commanding Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree — in other words, to keep a fast. Had they kept it, they would have learned good and evil from doing good. They would have been able to remain in a grace-filled immortality, growing spiritually to the stature God had intended them to reach through their own free will. They would have become "like God" (cf. Gen 3:5) on God's terms.
Although it is primarily abstinence from food, fasting involves more than this. Eve listened to the serpent, looked at the tree, reasoned about it, touched it, tasted it. She used all her senses and faculties. For this reason Great Lent is also a time of withdrawal from the stimuli of our senses. It is a time to turn off the phone, radio, television and internet, in order to free the mind from distraction and let the soul rest, focusing on God. The Church sings, "O my soul, be watchful, close all the doors through which the passions enter, and look up towards the Lord."
To be clear, fasting itself does not give a vision of God but a vision of God cannot come without fasting. Fasting gives freedom from oppressive habits and thereby from oppressive thoughts, and so prepares us for healing. "This kind cometh not out but by prayer and fasting" (Mt 17:21). For this reason, it is imperative to keep the fast to enjoy the benefits of the Lenten Season.
Great Lent is a sacred treasure, a great gift of our glorious Orthodox Tradition. Let us value it by keeping it and by utilizing all the medicines for body and soul which it contains — the fasting, the services, the beautiful hymns and prayers. Let us be healed and filled with its joy and energy, so that At the end of the journey we may hear in our depths the "divine, sweet, dear voice" of Christ, shining in His Paschal glory.