Before the Feast of the Lord’s Resurrection the Holy Church has established a period of seven weeks of fasting. More precisely we should say that there are six weeks plus one, for the seventh is Passion Week, a time which we consider beyond fasting and indeed any earthly effort.
What is the meaning of the Fast, and why does the Orthodox Church still preserve this special kind of preparation before our great feasts?
We must remember in the first place that fasting is related to one of God’s provisions for mankind. The Holy Fathers say that in Paradise man received the commandment to fast, to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, otherwise he would die. The purpose of the commandment was to protect man from falling away from God, which brings death. St. Basil the Great says, “Because we did not fast, we left Paradise and were driven out of it”. Beginning with the commandment in the Garden of Eden, continuing with the prophets Moses, Elijah, and Daniel, with St. John the Baptist, and then with the Savior Christ Himself, fasting has been a practice respected by all who wished to put aside material things in order to gain spiritual things.
The Savior makes a statement which reveals the profound meaning of fasting: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word which comes out of the mouth of God”. This shows that fasting does not mean just starving ourselves by abstaining from food, but nourishing ourselves with another kind of food—spiritual food, which is the Word of God. The Savior tells us that man is not made of soul and body, the soul desiring spiritual things and the body desiring material things; but man is soul and body, and spiritual things can be nourishment even for the body.
In fasting we can experience the fact that our body can be nourished also by another kind of food, not only by bread. This is because, as a result of our efforts in fasting, the body begins to let go a little of its attachment to material things and to receive spiritual things more. The very matter with which we are in solidarity through our body begins to be spiritualized through the work of grace, to which is added man’s efforts to receive the Word of God. In fasting we begin to understand a certain communion which was established between God and man before the fall of Adam, a communion in which the entire being of man, soul and body, participated. We also begin to understand the communion which exists between us as people, related to our communion with God. The closer we get to God, the closer we get to our brothers as well.
In the light of these things, every time of fasting is a struggle for each Christian who desires to fast. Today’s world and our responsibilities in it don’t encourage our fasting. In every fast, the struggle comes in trying to find a certain balance between our ascetical efforts and fulfilling our daily responsibilities. But this struggle will bring spiritual joy for the one who fasts and discovers the meaning of our Savior’s words about feeding on the Word of God.