As published in Horizons, the newspaper of the Eparchy of Parma, March 5, 2017.
As we begin the most strenuous of the four fasting periods in the Byzantine Catholic Church, the Great Fast, it is good to be reminded of the purpose and goal of fasting in the Eastern tradition.
It is important to remember that what we fast from and when we fast are dictated not by our own tastes but by the typikon or rule of the church.
During the Great Fast or Great Lent, the traditional Eastern fast outlined by the church includes abstaining from all meat and dairy products, including eggs, as well as oil and wine on weekdays, with a mitigation for oil and wine on Saturday and Sunday.
There are a few feast days that oil and wine are also allowed, which can be found in the typikon, and there are two feast days when fish is allowed — Annunciation and Palm Sunday.
It is necessary to remember why we fast. In the wisdom of the Church, fasting developed as a physical reminder of our primary dependence on God.
Our fasting calls us out of ourselves and our self-sufficiency and reminds us of our utter poverty before our Heavenly Father.
As Jesus tells us in the Gospel of St. John, “apart from me you can do nothing” (15:5).
We see the truth of these words at the beginning of every fast in the monastery. Deprive us of our easy sources of protein and we quickly begin to get irritable and out of sorts.
Our poverty and dependence on food become tangible as our stomachs remind us that we aren’t being filled by food in the same way.
Even as nuns, we need this reminder, so we can begin again to surrender to our ultimate need for God to fill us — beyond a full stomach.
It is essential to realize that fasting is not simply the work of the monks and nuns; it is implicit in each Christian’s baptismal call to holiness. That’s right — everyone is called to fast!
The ascetical life of the Eastern Church is on a spectrum, calling each person to some degree of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, that is appropriate for his or her state in life.
As monks and nuns, we hopefully live that witness in its fullness, offering our lives as a model for the ideal or goal of the Christian life of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
We pray our witness may inspire everyone also to engage more fully in the ascetical Christian life, which will lead all to a deeper union with God, beginning heaven on earth.
A good summary of these ideas is found in these words from the Aposticha at Vespers for Monday of Cheesefare Week: “By fasting, let us strive to purify ourselves from the stain of our sins. By mercy and the love of our neighbor; by our zeal to help the needy, we shall be able to enter the bridal chamber who grants us his great mercy.”
As you start the Great Fast, be sure to consider how you would like to incorporate fasting in your preparations for Pascha. Make a commitment to start one new fasting practice this year.
Be sure to increase your prayer as well — fasting without prayer is just dieting! Out of that life of prayer and fasting, you will find it easier to do the acts of charity or almsgiving that we are also called to do during the Great Fast. Make sure you have all three or you won’t have a stool to sit on!
For more information on fasting, as well as some practical dos and don’ts for how to incorporate fasting practices into your Great Fast, be sure to check out my reflections along with Father Moses of Holy Resurrection Monastery in St. Nazianz, Wisc., on our new cooking show, Eastern Hospitality.
Go to www.easternhospitality.org and click on Episode 2:2.