Remembering the importance of prayer and fasting

In the name of the Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Amen!

One of the most misunderstood and disregarded practices of Christianity has become that of fasting. Historically in Lent, fasting efforts were increased even greater than throughout the year, which was done twice a week; on Wednesdays, a remembrance of Christ’s betrayal, and on Fridays, a remembrance of Christ’s death on the cross. It has now become a practice very few people do, even during Lent. As we continue on this Lenten journey it is important for us to be reminded of the purpose of the fast and how we can benefit from it.

Fasting was commanded by Christ to his disciples. We hear Him speak of this on numerous occasions. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, when asked by the disciples why they could not cast out the demon from the son suffering from epilepsy, Christ said that this could only be done “through prayer and fasting” (Matt. 17:21, Mrk. 9:29). Another time in Matthew, when speaking to His disciples, Christ instructed them that when they fast that they should not be like the hypocrites (Matt. 6:16-18). Very clearly the instruction here is when they fast, not if they fast. It was assumed that they would fast as even the Jews fasted twice a week which is evident by the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. There are numerous other examples of the importance and calling to fast but we already see the idea that this was something essential for Christ’s followers. In fact, Christ Himself fasted on numerous occasions as well. Even throughout St. Paul’s Epistles we hear the importance of fasting as he says, “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly” (Phil. 3:17).

The issue with fasting is we often think of it as some sort of obligation as opposed to an aid in spiritual growth and overcoming of the passions. Fasting is not a diet and is not just an obligation, but yet a way to overcome our bodily passions and reorient ourselves back to Christ. By fasting we focus on our souls through the use of our bodies, since a person is both body and soul. It is becoming a master of our bodies and passions versus letting our bodies and passions control us. Throughout my life I have overheard and had conversations with people who would say, regarding fasting from meats or other items, that “they would never be able to do that.” It is this exact reasoning why we need to fast. If we can’t say no to a cheeseburger, how in the world do we say no to other desires and to the very devil himself? When fasting we must also take into account how much we are eating. It doesn’t matter if we are abstaining from certain foods if we are still gluttonous and overeating. A voluntary hunger can help us have more compassion on those who hunger involuntarily.

When we fast we need to also increase our prayer life, or else it is just a diet and not in any way useful for our souls. Prayer is food for the soul and it is essential as Christians to pray unceasingly as St. Paul says. We also must fast with all our senses: what we watch, what we listen to, how we speak, and every aspect of our lives should be solely focused on Christ. It is a total fast in every aspect of our life. We should be striving to fast from all sins and this is only possible through prayer and the grace of God.

Adam and Eve’s sin was not fasting. They were commanded by God to not eat the fruit of the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The sin was not necessarily the eating of the tree but that they ate because they were tempted and told they could become gods by doing so. They followed their own will, and their pride became their downfall and the eventual downfall for all people, placing us in the fallen world we live in today. This may seem unfair for us that everyone is cast out because of one person’s sin. Many Early Church writers make it clear though that if we were in their predicament we would do the same. How do they know this? Because we have both the Gospels and Christ, yet we still sin and go against God’s commandments. This is far worse than the primitive Adam! Not fasting in itself is never considered a sin, at least not in the Orthodox Church which still holds strict guidelines on fasting, but the underlying reason for not fasting would be the actual sin. When we break a fast because of carnal desires, or fall victim to gluttony, that is the true sin.

As we continue through our Lenten journey we should do what we can to fast in whatever way we can, whether our particular Church gives us guidelines and rules or not, we all can benefit spiritually from fasting in one form or another. St. Basil, a bishop from Cappadocia, modern day Turkey, in the 4th century writes in his First Homily on Fasting; “Since we did not fast, we fell from Paradise; let us, therefore, fast in order that we may return to it.”

In the name of the Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Amen.

(“From the Pulpit” is a weekly sermon provided by the clergy members of The Weirton Ministerial Association)