Fasting had a scattered presence in my early Christian life, as something I did when I needed a spiritual boost. If there was an important matter that required urgent prayer, or if I was in a season where I felt distant from God, I would give up food for a few days.
In the protestant circles I grew up in emphasized that fasting was not a compulsory thing. If we felt led to fast, we treated it as a purely individual act of spiritual devotion. In fact, we were encouraged to individualize our fasting. Perhaps rather than giving up food, if I were to feel led I should give up television instead, or give up using the computer, tailoring the details of the fast according to our own spiritual needs and leanings.
There were points in my life where I latched on to fasting, consuming nothing but water for days at a time. It seemed important to me how fasting weakened me physically, which was a reminder to rely less on my own strength and more on God’s. I also perceived that the act of giving up food was an act of “small martyrdom”, and this assuaged my concern that sacrifice was such a non-existent part of my Christian walk even though it was of great importance in the Bible. Protestant Christianity has a tendency to be overly intellectual, and for this reason I appreciated how fasting made me feel the reality of human weakness and divine power, rather than simply think it.
I never felt any inclination to follow the seasonal fasts of Christianity, even Lent. I viewed the practice of the Lenten fast as empty, outward devotion. This view started changing when I moved to Houston. My protestant church there was led by a pastor who deeply appreciated the history of the Christian church, and so he encouraged us to follow Lent in some form. His explanation was that Lent was part of the church’s cycle of mourning and celebration, that the fasting we perform at Lent enabled us to reflect on the brokenness and pain in this fallen world, and prepare us to receive the hope of renewal that comes with Jesus Christ’s resurrection on Easter morning.
This was my first glimpse of the idea of fasting as a communal practice, something the whole church did in unison, and eventually I transitioned toward an Eastern Orthodox understanding of fasting as something that the church did together as one body of Christ.
Eastern Orthodox fasting rules are rather complex. There are four main fasting seasons in the church calendar. The fast of the apostles occurs shortly after Pentecost and is intended to be a preparation for us to go into the world and do God’s work, as the first apostles did after the Holy Spirit descended on them. The fast of the dormition takes place for two weeks in August, and is a preparation for the feast of the dormition, when the church remembers the day when Mary passed. The third is the Nativity fast, which occurs for a month before Christmas as a preparation for that great feast. Finally, and most importantly, the long Lenten fast is a preparation for Easter, the greatest of all celebrations.
Together with the weekly fasting days on Wednesday and Friday where we remember Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion, about half of the year is devoted to some sort of fast. The exact details vary, but typically on fasting days Orthodox Christians abstain from meat, eggs, dairy, wine and olive oil, and restrict the amount of food we eat.
I am very new to the Orthodox manner of fasting, and there is a lot about it I don’t understand very well. But one thing I appreciate already is how the fasting calendar can be inconvenient in a way that the individually tailored fasts I practiced before never were. Frequently, fasting seasons occur when I don’t want to fast, and yet I do anyway. Thus I surrender a little bit of control over my own life and entrust a little more of myself to Christ.
This is not to say that the fasting rules are completely rigid. In every fasting season I have experienced in the Orthodox church the priest has emphasized that we don’t fast out of guilt or legal obligation, but as a way to practice our spiritual disciplines, to grow, and to be healed of our brokenness. As such, there are usually reasonable accommodations for medical issues, or when we are offering hospitality, et cetera. For instance, it is common in American Orthodox churches to exempt Thanksgiving from fasting even when it falls on the Nativity fast, since Thanksgiving is such an important holiday in American culture, and one that involves a large meal with family. Each fasting season normally includes a reminder that we are to be concerned with our own fasting, not anyone else’s and to resist the temptation to judge others’ piety. In my American church, the following cartoon was in the bulletin every week of Lent
As grueling as each new fasting season may be, I always end up learning a great deal. By fasting, I come face to face with my limitations and with God’s limitlessness. By fasting, I confront my tendency to judge my brothers and sisters, and experience the fullness of God’s grace acting in the church. By fasting, I mourn the brokenness, sorrow, and poverty that afflict the world today, and look forward in hope to when Christ overcomes it all.