We’ve passed the halfway point of Great Lent, and as far as I can tell, the Orthodox faithful are still standing. And prostrating.
Each year as this season approaches, I tend to view the Mother of All Fasts with both anticipation and dread: Anticipation of the sweetness of walking this journey with my brothers and sisters in Christ, and dread because… Well, dang, Lent just goes on and on.
Throughout the year, most Orthodox fasting periods are short, and fasting days follow an essentially vegan diet—no meat or dairy, although shellfish is permissible. It’s doable.
And then Great Lent arrives. (Cue the scary violins from Psycho.) It means going vegan for forty days (with extra treats allowed here and there), followed by seven more days of fasting during Holy Week.
But wait, there’s more! The Church also jump-starts the season with a vegetarian week beforehand. (Perhaps the holy Fathers longed for one last fling with the mac and cheese too.) So we’re talking fifty-six days of dietary restriction. Plus longer daily Bible readings and lots of extra services to attend.
No other Christian tradition is so rigorous. (Or, more accurately, the other traditions have eased up on the guidelines of historic Christianity or jettisoned them entirely.) I once saw the following bumper sticker on the back of a sedan:
I laughed—a little uncomfortably. Because a faithful Catholic or Protestant believer might ask, Aren’t all those requirements legalistic?
It’s a good question. The honest answer is that any discipline can become an empty rule if we neglect the heart behind it.
Still, nothing in my past prepared me for Orthodox lenten practices, even when approached with a humble, Christ-centered outlook. My Evangelical background valued individual religious experience in spiritual formation. Some of the churches I attended ignored Lent altogether, and Holy Week was really more of a Holy Weekend, with Good Friday, a Saturday lull, then Easter. (Some churches earned extra credit by hosting beautiful, meditative Maundy Thursday services.)
Few parishioners can attend every Orthodox service offered during Lent. We do what we can, and we reap sometimes unexpected spiritual benefits. The ancient, traditional approach to fasting that the historic Church has followed for almost two millennia has taught me five powerful lessons:
1. Fasting is not a private matter between God and me.
During my years as a committed Protestant Christian, fasting was taught and practiced as an individualistic activity. People fast when they “feel” the need, usually when seeking direction from God or specific answers to prayer. This is often beneficial, and I believe that God smiles on our efforts to seek Him.
But there are dangers to going it alone. It’s easy for an attitude of spiritual superiority over the non-fasting masses to take root. The personal approach also can lead to self-deception: an implicit belief that any idea that comes to me must be a specific word from God as a result of my fasting, and with His seal of approval, I don’t need any other counsel.
In contrast, corporate fasting is about us. It has nothing to do with my feelings or the Spirit speaking specifically to me (and, by extension, not to you). It is about the need we all have to curb the desires of the flesh and to seek God together in unity.
2. Fasting is not about personal preference.
This seemed really weird to me at first. I was accustomed to a variety of fasting practices: groups who abstained together (say, the missions committee or prayer ministry), elders who called on the entire congregation to fast for a specific need, and individuals who fasted for personal reasons. People also set their own dietary rules—strict water fast, liquids-only fast, skipping one meal a day, giving up chocolate or television, etc. Fasting involved just me and Jesus, doing our thing.
But in Orthodoxy, we’re all on this journey together. Nobody has to decide the rules of the fast, because the Church in her wisdom has laid out the path for us in terms of fasting days and dietary requirements. We don’t determine what to give up, or when. Instead, we humble ourselves and walk this path as a Body, setting aside self-will and trusting God to work in us through His Church.
3. Fasting requires submission to spiritual authority.
This is related to the admonition not to go our own way in our lenten practices. Orthodox Christians should approach fasting with the guidance of a spiritual father, usually the parish priest. He can suggest modifications to the fast because of dietary restrictions, medical issues, and spiritual needs. This is where the corporate becomes personal, and the timeless wisdom of the Church is applied to individuals with grace instead of legalism. Valuing a priest’s wisdom and submitting to his authority also helps guard against both spiritual pride in our efforts and the sense of failure that can result from overzealous striving.
4. Fasting is not about suffering.
Many of my Protestant friends like to “do something” for Lent. I believe this desire stems from a God-given spiritual hunger for sacred times and seasons, even when specific churches don’t recognize such things. So they’ll have Facebook conversations—“I love chocolate, so I’m giving up candy.” Or, “I’m addicted to caffeine, so I’m giving up coffee.” Lent becomes identified with deprivation, and its true purpose is lost.
In his helpful Q&A on “Fasting and Lent,” Fr. John Matusiak explains, “The purpose of fasting is not to ‘give up’ things, nor to do something ‘sacrificial’.… We do not fast in order to suffer. We fast in order to get a grip on our lives and to regain control of those things that have gotten out of control. Further, as we sing during the first week of Great Lent, ‘while fasting from food, let us also fast from our passions.’”
I’m still working on truly understanding the most powerful lesson:
5. Fasting is not ultimately about food.
A wonderful saying states, “Fasting without prayer and almsgiving is dieting.” If I abstain from certain foods without devoting extra time to prayer (time that has been freed up from planning and preparing fancy meals), I am simply following a food plan.
If I abstain from certain foods without donating extra money (money that I’ve saved by not buying expensive meats and cheeses), I am simply giving up things without truly cultivating a spirit of giving in my life.
If I abstain from certain foods with feelings of resentment or with the hope of “bribing” God for His favor, I should probably grab a Big Mac for lunch and call it a day. Or better yet, call my priest to set up an appointment for an attitude check.
We do not fast to prove ourselves or to cling to outdated rules. We fast to remind ourselves to exercise self-control in so many other areas of our lives. Saint John Chrysostom, the great fourth-century preacher and the author of the Divine Liturgy used most commonly in the Orthodox Church, said it best:
The joy of Pascha is fast approaching. (No pun intended.) We’re more than halfway there. May God grant continued good strength to us all!