I Our modern and secular culture knows little of the value of fasting as the ancients understood it. For us, any denial of our bodily desires is at best unnecessary and at worst unnatural and harmful. Abstaining from food is acceptable if part of a weight-loss program, for it has an acceptable goal in mind – namely, looking slim and sexy. But abstaining from food because it is Great and Holy Friday, with the goal in mind of pleasing the Lord, is less acceptable to our culture. It may be tolerated as part of a strange and incomprehensible religion, but it will not strike a responsive chord, because our culture does not recognize pleasing the Lord as an acceptable goal in the same way as it recognizes looking slim and sexy as an acceptable goal.
This means that between the weight-loss programs in our culture and ascetic fasting in all ancient cultures, a great gulf has been fixed. The ancients would have considered the goal of looking slim and sexy frivolous and unworthy, and our present culture considers ancient fasting odd and perhaps pathological.
Nonetheless, the ancients were right about this – as all monastics will attest. Fasting (that is, fasting from food; sexual abstinence during such fasts was assumed) brought with it inner power and the possibility of heightening one’s spiritual powers and entering a higher realm. We see this in 2 Esdras.
The apocalyptic book of 2 Esdras was written in about the first century BC. In its present form, the book purports to be the revelations of Shealtiel, father of Zerubbabel, who was governor of postexilic Judea in the sixth century BC – also known as Ezra (2 Esdras 3:1), though Ezra lived a century later.
As an apocalyptic seer, Ezra was chosen to receive visions and revelations from the Lord. The angel Uriel appeared to him, revealing esoteric truths, but in order to learn more, he was commanded by the angel to “fast for seven days, and you shall hear yet greater things than these” (2 Esdras 5:13). This requirement of fasting to prepare oneself inwardly to enter the higher realm of revelation was repeated again and again throughout 2 Esdras – the prophet was required to fast later for another seven days (5:20), and then later for another seven days (6:35), and then yet again for another seven days (12:51). Ezra indeed received the promised visions (written down as the content of 2 Esdras), but only after fasting for a week each time.
Such a requirement seems odd to our culture. If God wants to share something with someone, why doesn’t He just do it? But this did not seem odd to the ancients. They knew that man lived in a world of distraction and shadows, the eyes of his heart and mind constantly turning this way and that. In this state, he was in no shape to receive and appreciate higher and shattering truths. Our culture would view any such revelation in terms of sharing facts, information, and data – as something to be received by the mind. Not much inner preparation is required to receive delivery of such information; it would be akin to simply downloading and opening a computer file.
In fact, however, revelation from God is never simply about facts. Divine revelation fills and breaks and shatters and heals and rebuilds the heart, working like saving leaven to eventually transform one’s entire life. Isaiah received a revelation from God and felt himself undone (Isaiah 6:5); Ezekiel received a revelation and fell on his face (Ezekiel 1:28). Saul of Tarsus fell to the earth when he received a revelation on the road to Damascus and would eat or drink nothing for three days (Acts 9:4, 9). Even John the beloved disciple fell at Christ’s feet as one dead when He appeared to him (Revelations 1:17). If even prophets and apostles reacted this way and found divine revelation so overwhelming, obviously men and women like us must prepare ourselves before being able to receive such things. Fasting is a part of this preparation to receive such words from God and to learn higher truths in the realm of the spirit.
Fasting is always coupled with prayer in the Scriptures. That is why it is coupled with prayer in Mark 9:29. In this passage, the disciples were faced with an extreme case of demonic possession. A boy was possessed by a terrible demon that caused him to be thrown down with grinding of teeth and foaming mouth (Mark 9:18). The father of the boy brought him to the disciples of Jesus, asking them to cast out the demon from his child in their Lord’s Name, even as they had cast out demons on other occasions (compare Mark 6:13). To their amazement and humiliation, the disciples found themselves unable to cast out the demon from the child.
The Lord, of course, cast out the demon instantly. When later the disciples privately asked the Lord why they could not cast it out, He replied, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer” (Mark 9:29). Other manuscripts add the words “and fasting” to our Lord’s reply. But regardless of the authenticity of the addition, we should not miss its significance – namely, that any ancient person would have assumed such prayer would be accompanied by fasting. Even if our Lord didn’t specify fasting, such fasting would have been assumed by His hearers. The addition may not be authentically original, but it is not wrong. And it witnesses to how integral fasting was to sustained intensive prayer in the ancient mind.
Fasting was thus a fixed component in the life of the Christian from the earliest days. In His Sermon on the Mount, Christ assumed His disciples would fast, just as He assumed they would pray privately and give alms (see Matthew 6:1f, and especially verses 16-17). After all, pious people such as the Pharisees might fast twice a week (Luke 18:12) – surely the Lord’s disciples could do no less?
As long as He was with them and was invited to the homes of sinners for a banquet, the disciples would accompany their Lord to these banquets, even if they occurred on the usual Jewish fast days of Monday and Thursday. This scandalized such people as the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees (Mark 2:18), who condemned the Lord’s disciples for eating on these fast days. But this was exceptional and caused by the necessity of Christ, the Physician of souls and bodies, reaching out with healing to those who were spiritually sick (Mark 2:16-17). Soon enough He would be “taken away,” and after the Cross and Resurrection, the disciples would fast in those days (Mark 2:19-20).
We see this fasting in the lives of the earliest Christians reflected in the Didache, a church manual of sorts dating from about AD 100. Part of this composite document looks at disputed questions, such as the question of when a Christian ought to do his regular fasting. It counsels as follows: “Before baptism let the one baptizing and the one who is to be baptized fast, as well as any others who are able. Also, you must instruct the one who is to be baptized to fast for one or two days beforehand. But do not let your fasts coincide with those of the hypocrites [that is, the Jews]. They fast on Monday and Thursday, so you must fast on Wednesday and Friday” (Didacbe 7:4-8:1). Here we see that these early Christians were encouraged to fast prior to the baptism of their new converts. All those actually involved in the baptism itself must fast, with the one being baptized fasting for “one or two days beforehand.”
Furthermore, see from this passage that all Christians were expected to fast twice a week as the Jews did, though other days were chosen to differentiate the Christians from the Jews. This fast did not simply consist of abstention from certain foods, such as meat, fish, or dairy products. Rather, these twice-weekly fasts consisted of abstention from all food until mid-afternoon or evening. Further, when (probably toward the end of the first century) the Eucharist was separated from its original context in the agape, or love, feast (celebrated in the evening) and began to be held early in the morning, the Christians would fast before coming to receive the Eucharist every Sunday. As one can see, the Church has always placed a great emphasis on the importance of fasting.
II What is it about fasting, we may ask, that is so important? Why was it assumed in ancient days as preparation for receiving revelation, and why did it become an integral part of the Christian’s life of discipleship? What does fasting do to a person? In a word, it makes one hungry. That seems too obvious to need stating, but we need to see how important and basic eating is to human existence to appreciate fully what the refusal to eat can accomplish. Man is, biologically speaking, primarily an eating machine.
I remember my grade ten biology teacher stating this: Manis a creature who only continues to live because he puts food into a hole near the top of his head (his mouth), lets the food pass through, and eliminates it at the other end. His feet and legs exist to carry him to his food; his hands exist to seize the food and put it into his mouth. He is, my high school teacher said, a being all of whose organs exist to help carry out these functions, a walking digestive system. Pretty much everything else in his biological existence is subordinated to the act of eating. Man could do without sex if he had to; he could do without philosophy and all cultural pursuits; but he could not do without eating.
It is not just my high school teacher who says this. Fr. Alexander Schmemann makes the same point. In his classic work “For the Life of the World,” Schmemann writes: “In the biblical story of creation man is presented, first of all, as a hungry being, and the whole world as his food…. Man must eat in order to live; he must take the world into his body and transform it into himself, into flesh and blood … the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table for man…. It is not accidental, therefore that the biblical story of the Fall is centered again on food.” (pages 11, 16).
Eating is basic to our existence, not just in the sense that if we stop eating we eventually die, but also because we were constructed inwardly by God to delight in eating, to orient our lives toward this act. As Schmemann also writes, “Centuries of secularism have failed to transform eating into something strictly utilitarian. Food is still treated with reverence. A meal is still a rite – the last ‘natural sacrament’.” (p. 16).
Eating is primarily what we do. It is in our spiritual DNA, and the most secret and deep parts of our mind, heart, and subconscious are saturated with hunger, a desire to eat. The degree to which eating is basic to our inner existence may be seen in what happens when we are unable to eat for days or weeks – in other words, when we begin to starve. The thin veneer of our civilization quickly wears away, and we will do anything to eat.
Exactly what we are prepared to do is reflected in such biblical passages as Deuteronomy 28:52-57 and 2 Kings 18:27 (which I invite you to read). We in North America often can be heard to say, “I’m starving!” when we are quite ready to eat, but the over-whelming majority of us have never known real hunger or starvation. God grant that we never will and that the historical realities reflected in the above passages will never occur in our days. Our North American affluence and the abundance of available food hides from us the degree to which we are, in Fr. Alexander’s words, “hungry beings.”
Having better appreciated the true significance of food, we can now appreciate also the significance of hunger. Hunger violates or at least pushes something basic to our inner equilibrium. It threatens our existence – and therefore our self-sufficiency. David spoke of humbling his soul with fasting (Psalm 35:13), for fasting does humble the soul, pushing one’s inner self to the edge, creating a spiritual void within the soul, as well as the obvious material void within the stomach. It is as we face this void and are pushed by our need toward the limits of our inner resources that we can enter a different realm.
In our normal daily life, we live superficially. Things like traffic jams, petty annoyances, and long lines bother us and often put us into a temper. We are distracted and absorbed by music, by headlines, by entertainment news. In short, we live on the surface, too easily absorbed and preoccupied by trivialities. When we fast, we have the opportunity to leave this all behind, to break through to a place where we can discern the basic from the ephemeral, what is really central to our existence from life’s passing adornments. Fasting allows us to see the world with new eyes, or at least with a renewed vision of what is essential. We see and know again in our depths that we are “hungry beings.”
If we are fasting and not simply starving (that is, if our fasting is voluntary and for the sake of the Lord), we can also know again that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4). It is because of this power in fasting that it was often coupled with prayer.
Jesus said to the crowds about John, “I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John the Baptist. Yet the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7:28)