Author: Fr George Dimopoulos
Source: Orthodox Sermons for all the Sundays of the Year – Volume I
Publisher: Christian Orthodox Editions
“Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting” – (Matthew 17:21). Gospel Lesson: Matthew 6:14-21.
Many of the laws and regulations of our Orthodox Church have been greatly misunderstood by our people. Even the educated and the spiritually developed among our congregation prefer to ignore many of these laws, in order that they be not burdened with them. Generally speaking, the great masses of our people have little understanding of our Church regulations.
Moreover, only a handful of those who actually observe these laws have any sort of understanding of them that goes beyond the letter of the law. One such law of the Church, a law that has been greatly misunderstood and misinterpreted is the law of fasting. To be more precise, most people acknowledge this law merely by abstaining from certain foods on certain days of the year.
The fast was proclaimed and spoken about by our Lord Jesus Christ, but what kind of fasting was He speaking of? He spoke concerning a genuine fast, a fast with a deep spiritual purpose – not the kind of fast with which most of us are probably familiar. He spoke of a fast that was not only abstinence from food, but (and more important) abstinence from sin as well. Fasting is made necessary by the spiritual condition of man. Thus, virtually every religion that has ever been practiced on the face of the earth has embraced some sort of fasting. But “Christian fasting”, as it were, is markedly different from the fasting practiced by other faiths.
Fasting, in itself, is not a religious virtue (although it is certainly healthy); rather, it is the means whereby man can achieve virtue. Thus, in today’s Gospel Lesson, Jesus insists that fasting be accompanied by two virtues: that of forgiveness, and that of almsgiving.
The Pharisees fasted very strictly and ostentatiously. Their eyes were gloomy, their attitude sorrowful. And, most terrible of all, they put ashes over their heads to show people that their fast was a strong and difficult one. In the presence of other men they beat their breasts, loudly lamenting their sins. On the other hand, although they boasted of their strict fasting, they continued to oppress the poor – especially widows and orphans. “But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation” (Matt. 23:14). These hypocrites who Christ was addressing attempted to prove their worthiness not to God, who knows every inner thought of man; rather, they concentrated on impressing their fellowmen with their arrogant and counterfeit righteousness.
Fasting – abstaining from all the forbidden foods – has little value if we persist in gossip, slander, and hating our brother, refusing to be reconciled with our fellow man. The purpose of fasting is, under these conditions, perverted and destroyed. Yet, very unfortunately, many who consider themselves exemplary Orthodox Christians practice just this type of fasting. Of course, even they are better than those who completely ignore the fasting rules, and continue at the same time in their life of sinful pleasures. St John Chrysostom wrote these eloquent words on the subject of fasting:
The fact is of real value only when it stems from a pure heart; when one is ready to deny wealth, and stand above money; when one is ready to give alms to the poor; when one has love and affection, not only for one’s own children, but also for the orphans and the poor. One manifests real fasting when he is ready to deprive himself of food, in order that the hungry and destitute might be fed. One really fasts when he maintains his equilibrium under all stress, never allowing himself to lose his temper and explode like a volcano, destroying everyone around him. A genuine fast involves the willingness to discard all vain ambition, which often results in destruction – not only for those who practice it, but for all who are close to them. One who is actually fasting never manifests covetousness.
The saint hastens to add that he is not condemning the practice of fasting: “God forbid; rather, I extol it!” Yet he insists that, unaccompanied by virtue, fasting is worthless. In the enumeration of virtues, fasting comes last; the first three are love, forebearance and charity. To really fast, we must abstain not only from food, but from sin. Otherwise we dishonour the holy period of Great Lent. What is the use of not eating meat, if we cannot abstain from criticising our brother behind his back?
Tomorrow, my brethren, Pure/Clean Monday, the first day of the Fast, let us begin our spiritual preparations for the great and holy banquet – the passion and resurrection of Christ. During this period, we know that many will completely disregard all that they stand to gain by fervent and active participation in the Fast. For such people, the Church calendar of feasts and fasts is non-existent. I would hope and pray that you are not of such mind. As your spiritual father, I beg you: pray, fast, abstain from sin. Try sincerely during the Fast, and you will gain new strength for the rest of our life. May God bless you.