“Let us observe a fast acceptable and pleasing to the Lord. True fasting is to put away all evil, to control the tongue, to forbear from anger, to abstain from lust, slander, falsehood, and perjury” (Aposticha at Vespers, Clean Monday)
This verse can rightly be called a teaching of the Church for all holy fasts. Our words and homilies, due to their very weakness, are often lengthy, while the teaching of the Church is as brief as it is strong and true. Therefore, it’s all the more necessary to turn all our attention to it and to think about what the holy Church teaches concerning fasting. “Let us observe a fast acceptable and pleasing to the Lord!” That means there’s a fast that is unacceptable and displeasing to the Lord! What kind of fasting is this?
The kind where you don’t eat like normal, or perhaps, not at all, but with your anger and obstinacy, you eat away the soul and body of those at hand, whether servants or relatives; that fast when you fall to the ground in church and entreat forgiveness of sins for yourself, asking that they be forgiven as you forgive all transgressions against you, and then leaving church, you go to court to harass your poor debtor, to collect every last penny from him, or otherwise toss him into jail and impoverish his whole house and family. Fasting isn’t pleasing to the Lord when you outwardly seem to humble yourself and say that you’re the chief among sinners, but inwardly, not knowing the measure of your illusory virtues, you put yourself above everyone in your thoughts, making yourself the judge of the universe, ready to judge and condemn everyone and everything. Displeasing to God is that fast when you want and expect that all the treasures of the grace of God should be opened to you for your little bows and a few sighs, that all the wounds of your conscience would be healed, that you would be led to the royal supper itself and fed with the Body and Blood of Christ; while you yourself, hearing all the groans and cries of your poor brothers, aren’t disposed to share even a small part of your excess with them; you cold-heartedly leave the sick and suffering without any help, you hesitate to bring strangers under your roof, and you begrudge sharing with those who hunger—not your body and blood (let them remain with you), but those mountains and hills of food that practically cause your granaries to burst. Fasting is displeasing to God when you’re afraid to bring a cup of hot water to your lips, but not that from these lips might continue to come forth, like smoke from a furnace, idle and putrid words, bitter and stinging mockeries, intimations full of temptations and spiritual contagion. May all such fasters not dare to hope for mercy from the Lord. Their fasting is not only not pleasing, but, according to the Prophet, is an abomination before God.
It would be better were you to eat whatever you like, but at the same time nourish those who are almost dying of hunger even outside of the fast; it would be better for you to continue adorning yourself with your clothes as before, but at the same time use your excess garments, hanging idly and eaten by moths, to cover the nakedness of your poor brethren who groan from the cold; it would be even better to not interrupt your usual entertainment and fun, but while idling about, bring comfort and joy to those who have long since forgotten whether there is any joy on earth.
“True fasting is to put away all evil, to control the tongue, to forbear from anger, to abstain from lust, slander, falsehood, and perjury.”
Separating ourselves from all these vices shouldn’t constitute fasting, coercion, and labor for us, but the most natural thing, and peace, and joy. But, imbued with sin and self-will from our ancestors, accustomed by ourselves to violating the laws of abstinence, our nature has become so acquainted with passions and vices that it’s become almost as natural for it to follow these passions and the evil will as for the body to take its daily sustenance. Therefore, whoever desires to be free from sins must constantly restrain himself from evil and force himself to do good, just as those who are fasting restrain themselves from food and compel themselves to contemplate God. This abstinence from the passions and vices, according to the teaching of the Church, is a true fast pleasing to the Lord. External fasts aren’t always necessary, but this internal fast is necessary at all times. External fasts pass away and come to an end; but this spiritual fast is continuous and should end only together with our life, when we, having shed the perishable and sin-loving flesh, will adorn ourselves in incorruption and passionlessness.
So, do you want to fast truly? Above all, restrain your tongue from every idle word, especially those that are rotten and improper. Begin a spiritual fast with this tiny member of the body; this member is nevertheless a great enemy and stubborn opponent. Having conquered its stubbornness, you will be able to bridle the whole body (Jas. 3:2). Otherwise, your tongue, like a wild and ferocious horse, will drag you and your fasting through the wilds of lies, malice, and deceit.
Do you want to fast truly? Along with food, give up all hatred, vexation, murmuring, and bickering. Become quiet, meek, humble, forbearing, and loving in everything and with everyone. Decency requires this even outside of the Fast. Otherwise, if you continue to be obstinate and contentious, then some will involuntarily think that you’re angry like a little child because the Church rebukes you for eating your favorite dishes.
Do you want to fast truly? Together with food, separate all other carnal whims from yourself. For your old and sinful man blinds and destroys you not only by satiety of the body. Excess food harms only yourself, while other types of carnality and concupiscence harm many others besides yourself. Abandon all of this. Remove that book breathing lust and libertinism from your nightstand; remove tempting images from the walls of your room; and then rid your mind and memory of (as much as possible the first time, for this can’t be done immediately: The mind isn’t like the walls of a house), I say, throw away, all lustful images and establish the Cross of Christ and the image of your death in their stead in your memory and imagination.
Do you want to fast truly? If you have any unjust letters of misappropriation for the property of another, tear them up; stop the case initiated in court for this matter; concede as much as possible, even from your own rights, so as not to drag yourself through the courts, like a Jew or Mohammedan.1 A Christian should be different not only in church, but also in court.
Do you want to fast truly? See how you can serve the least of your brethren in Christ in the name of the Lord, and immediately embark upon this work of charity. Permit those who are practically dying from hunger through no fault of their own access to your granaries. Clothe the naked, receive the orphan, care for the afflicted, visit the imprisoned. For it’s necessary that some kind of fruit would come from such a great tree as Great Lent. And what’s better than the fruits of love for mankind when you yourself are seeking the mercy of God by means of fasting?
Such a fast will be well-pleasing to the Lord! He who thus unites spiritual and bodily abstinence won’t destroy his recompense. Or rather, he already receives it here and now. For why do we fast? Undoubtedly, not in order to save some uneaten food, but to tame the flesh, ease the soul, enliven the conscience, and draw the grace of God nearer. But when we become purer and more chaste in thought, more truthful and edifying in word, meeker and more magnanimous in disposition, more just and beneficent in deed, then the goal of fasting, by this very means, with the help of God’s grace, will already be achieved in us—at first, of course, weakly and imperfectly, and then—more and more perfectly, until we become in all respects as followers of Christ should be.
Otherwise, our fast will be like medicine taken by a patient who then, out of foolishness and intemperance, gives himself over to all the old habits that produced his illness. What can be expected from such a medicine but the exacerbation of the illness, which is all the more dangerous because we, hoping for healing, think we’re recovering? In that case, it would be better not to fast at all, for then at least we wouldn’t be deceiving ourselves, thinking we’re beyond danger. Amen.