Lent, in Church songs and the writings of the Holy Fathers, is called a spiritual healer.
And so, what is lent? In accordance with Dal’s Tolkovyi slovar’ [Explanatory Dictionary], lent [“post” in Russian] is “the abstinence from non-lenten food and vain pleasures.” The Church of Christ teaches that lent is religious-moral vigilance and the salvific labor of piety. Truly Christian fasting is not only abstinence of the body from the usual food, but the restraint of the soul from all that is sinful. This latter abstinence must be united with the efforts of heightened prayer of repentance, moral purity, piety and good works. “Fast, brethren, bodily, let us fast spiritually as well,” the Church urges us to be increasingly watchful over both our body and our soul.
The history of the development of lent as a religious-moral struggle of man’s obedience to God through abstinence from food reaches back to the law given by God even in the Garden of Eden to our ancestor, Adam “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it” (Gen 2:16-17). So lent is as ancient as man himself.
Yet as we read in the book of Genesis, our ancestor Adam violated this law on abstinence given by God through the sin of disobedience, which is called the original sin. Through original sin, the first man introduced corruption into his divine nature, expressed through a tendency towards sin rather than towards good.
We find evidence of the corruption of human nature through Adam’s disobedience which led to the fall, evidence of the constant battle within mankind between the flesh and the spirit, and of the psychological duality of our divine-like souls under the influence of good and evil, all of this in Holy Scripture, which depicts this mighty struggle between good and evil within mankind. A corrupt nature is not strong enough to wage this war without the grace-filled help of God. This kind of aid was and can be received only through the labors of faith and piety, of which fasting and prayer assume the primary position. The Holy Fathers depict this as fasting and prayer being the wings of the human spirit which carry the soul to the heavens, far from human cares and vanities, from sin and lawlessness.
In the Old Testament, the holy Prophets of God Moses and Elias both fasted for forty days, thereby becoming worthy to converse with Christ on Mount Tabor (Ex. 34:28; Matth. 17:3). Prophet Daniel ate no food for 3 weeks (Dan. 10:2-3) and Ezra for 7 days (Ezr. 8:21-23). King David prayed and fasted and received through the Prophet Nathan forgiveness for his sins from God (2 Sam. 12:16-20). The pious Judean woman Judith fasted “all the days of her widowhood,” except except on sabbath eves and sabbaths, new moon eves and new moons, feastdays and holidays (Judith 8:6). Ninevites prayed and fasted “the greatest of them even to the least of them” and turned away God’s wrath for their great sins (Jonah 3:5-10). The Israelites fasted by God’s will during the terrible desolation from the palmerworm and the locust (Joel 1:14, 2:12-15). In order to please God, the Israelites fasted on the 4th, 5th, 7th and 10th months, as we see from the book of the Prophet Zachariah (Zach. 8:19).
On the cusp of the Old and New Testaments, we see the example of a great fasting ascetic in the person of John the Baptist (Mark 1:6), and the 84-year-old Prophetess Anna: “And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phan’u-el, of the tribe of Asher: she was of a great age, and had lived with a husband seven years from her virginity, and she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day” (Luke 2:36-37). .
In the New Testament, fasting is established and sanctified by the Head of the Church Himself, our Lord Jesus Christ, both through His personal example of fasting, and by His teachings and preaching on fasting.
After being baptized, before His emergence to serve mankind, Jesus Christ spent forty days and nights in the wilderness in a strict fast. Then, during the Sermon on the Mount, Christ spoke these words: “Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, they have their rewardЙ But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly” (Matthew 6:16-18).
Christ equated fasting with prayer as a weapon in the struggle against the temptations of the devils, saying “Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21).
Following the example set by the Savior, the holy apostles and other righteous persons of the New Testaments sanctified fasting through their own lives and teachings.
Holy Apostle Paul wrote of his labors, that he was constantly “in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness” (II Corinthians 11:27), and, urging others to fast, said of himself: “[I]n stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in watchings, in fastings” (II Corinthians 6:5). We read in Acts on the prophets and teachers of the Antiochian Church: Now there were in the church that was at An’ti-och certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyre’ne, and Man’a-en, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away” (Acts 13:1-3).
The Church instructs those who fast to eat the produce of the earth during lent and forbids the consumption of meat and other foods taken from the animal kingdom.
In this way, the Holy Church during returns those who fast to their original, normal, Paradisic food, which was decreed by God to the first man.
This was food taken from the fruits of plants and grasses. God allowed meat to be eaten by mankind only after the Flood, because of the weakening of the human organism and the sparse offerings of the earth. Meat has the properties of fattening a person, making him heavier, sleepier, overly soft and more sinful.
The Church of Christ set aside special times of the year for the labors of fasting and repentant prayer, and all of the faithful, in obligation to obey the Mother Church, must observe the fasts, holding to the church rule regarding eating and drinking, devoting themselves to repentant prayer, labors of mercy and partaking of the Holy Mysteries.
Despite all the above instructions for fasting and its positive effect on the soul of the believer, not one other teaching and tradition of the Church of Christ is subjected to so many assaults and distortions as the law of the observation of lent.
There are entire religions, such as Protestantism and the various sects and heretical groups that have stemmed from it which reject the fasting established by the Ecumenical Councils. For example, the Catholic Church, while recognizing fasts, does not consider it sinful to ignore them, and violates them with a clear conscience. Both of these deniers and violators of fasts try to soothe the conscience of their flocks by finding in Holy Scripture justification for this sin of resisting the laws of God and His Holy Church. They usually defend their false teaching by referring to the words of Apostle Paul: “But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse” (1 Corinthians 8:8).
But these words by the Apostle refer not to fasting, but to food. During the time of the Apostle, there were arguments about clean and unclean food. Holy Apostle Paul clarifies that all that God created is in and of itself clean. “I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean” (Romans 14:14). “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient” (1 Corinthians, 6:12). “For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs.” (Romans 14:20). “For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.” (Romans 14:17).
So the texts of Holy Apostle Paul on food teach us that food by itself is neither a condition nor an obstacle for the achievement of the Kingdom of Heaven, for food is either lenten (vegetable) or non-lenten (meat or dairy), not good or evil, it is not the path to the Kingdom of Heaven, it is not within food and drink that exist righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, but in the human heart, in a person’s Christian behavior.
Everything depends on how the person uses food and drink—to the glory of God, for the health and salvation of the soul and the flesh, or for sin, towards the temptation of others. Food and drink are sinful when the person abuses them through non-abstinence, gluttony, or the disobedience of the laws of God and the Church.
Among our own Orthodox people who call themselves believers one often hears such words as “Why was lent established, anyway, does God really need our physical fasting?” Of course, God does not need it, just as He does not need anything, but our own soul needs fasting, and our body. Lent is our time to test ourselves, a time to make our account of the wrong we have done, to examine those things for which our conscience does not berate us. The time of fasting is a time of spiritual sorrow over our sins. He who only grieves over purely earthly matters or failures, does he not often refuse food for days at a time, does he not refuse all sorts of amusements, does he not suffer from sleeplessness, despite the fact that his loved ones advise him to tend to his health? That is why fasting has existed always, at all times and among all peoples, beginning with the Jews, the Assyrians, the Hindus, Chinese, Egyptians, ancient Greeks and Romans, and finally among Christians. If by fasting people express their sorrow over earthly misfortune, why do some then reject the voice of the Church which calls upon us to express our sorrow over our sinfulness through fasting?
Indeed, does even the thought of eating non-lenten food occur to someone who is consumed with feelings of repentance? Would pleasures and amusements occupy themind of a person whose mind is consumed by worry over how to earn God’s mercy through repentance? Could such a person exist who, being genuinely immersed in repentant prayers in church, hearing the Gospel readings on the Passions of the Lord, venerating the Epitaphion (shroud), then exit the church and attend a ball or go to the theater, and at the same time say to others that he is filled with feelings of repentance? No, truly spiritual sorrow affects our external lives as well.
The enemies of fasting also object, reasoning that lent ostensibly weakens the body–but God does not ask us to cause our own death. Unfortunately, these people either forget or do not know that the Church releases from fasting the sick, those whose bodies suffer from consuming only Lenten food. The 69th Rule of the Apostles states: “If any bishop, presbyter, or deacon, or reader, or singer, does not fast the holy Quadragesimal fast of Easter, or the fourth day, or the day of Preparation, let him be deposed, unless he be hindered by some bodily infirmity. If he be a layman, let him be excommunicated.” The 19th Canon of the Council of Gangra states: “If any of the ascetics, without bodily necessityЙ disregard the fasts commonly prescribed and observed by the Church, being in perfect understanding in the matter, let him be anathema.” St Timothy, Bishop of Alexandria, in his Rule 10 said on this matter: “If a man be sick and from severe illness is weakened, and Holy Pascha approaches, is such a man obliged to fast, or for his severe weakness may the clergyman release from him to eat food and drink what he may, if oil or wine?” responded: “A sick man must be permitted to take food and drink dependent upon what he can bear. For a man completely weakened, by taking oil he does a righteous thing.” In the same saint’s 8th rule, the following question is put forth: “If a woman is in child-bed before Holy Pascha, on the Great Week, must she fast and not drink of wine, or is she released from fasting and from wine for giving birth?” His response was: “Fasting is established for the humbling of our bodies. And so when the body is humbled and in need, she must then take food and drink if she can and can endure.” And in the Syntagma, the following is added: “When it, that is, the body, is weak, it needs not burdens, but succor, to return health and gather its former strength.”
Despite their own very great labors, which are prohibitive for us, the holy ascetics had mostly achieved a venerable age. This means that strict fasts and weakening through fasting and labor does not shorten the life span of a person, and so the non-observance of fasting under the pretext of preserving ones health is most often an excuse which conceals the desire to sate ones flesh, and appease ones spiritual laxity.
Some also say the following: “Fasting should be in the quantity, not the quality of the food, since Lenten food is sometimes tastier than meat!” Of course, one can overeat of Lenten food, for example, in this country, where there are so many Lenten food products, and this happens among many who do “observe” lent.
Such fasting is, of course, condemned by the Church, which calls it Pharisee-ism, using the words of the Savior Himself. The inconsistency of such fasting with the teaching of the Church is apparent. The Church divided food into groupings of Lenten and non-Lenten not so that people could overeat of the first, and not so that this food could be used to make gourmet dishes, but so that the measured consumption of this food would remind us that now is the time for reflection upon the soul, and not the body.
Of all the creatures living on earth, only man is granted the ability to subject himself to self-testing and self-correction. Other creatures do not test themselves, since they cannot. Only man can fast in the world, that is, deny himself of one or another thing for a higher goal. In this case, fasting is a very positive educator of human will, which is the steering wheel of our life, setting us onto the path of good or sin.
In conclusion, I will bring the following deeply-edifying words to attest to the health benefits of the labor of fasting: “It is a remarkable thing: no matter how much we bother about our health, what healthful and pleasant foods we eat, what nutritious beverages we drink, no matter how many long walks we take in fresh air, still, in the end, we suffer from sickness and disease. The saints, who despised their flesh, mortifying their bodies with constant abstention, fasting, lying on the bare ground, keeping vigil, have removed death from their souls and their bodies. Our bodies, so well-fed and pampered, give off a stench after death, and sometimes during life, while their bodies are aromatic and they blossom as during life. My brethren! Come to see what you goal is, the aim of your life. We must mortify our many-passioned body through restraint, labor, prayer, and not stimulate it with sweets, temptations and sloth.”
And so let us remember that Lenten food serves as a reminder for us on this period of our self-testing, the time of our repentance and the time of our self-correction.
“‘While fasting with the body, brethren, let us also fast in spirit! Let us loose every bond of iniquity; Let us undo the knots of every contract made by violence ; Let us tear up all unjust agreements; Let us give bread to the hungry and welcome to our house the poor who have no roof to cover , them, that we may receive great mercy from Christ our God. Amen.”