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March-April 2017 Download the latest edition of spirit

The Fast That God Requires of Us

We call it the Old Testament, but there is nothing old about it. The Church indeed would have been wise to pay more attention to the Hebrew scriptures - and not only for 'prophecies' of Christ. If we had done so, perhaps our focus during Lent would not be so limited. If we paid more attention to the not-so-old testament, we might better understand Jesus himself.

How do we fast? Do we fast according to the unrealistic rules that monks imposed on the entire Church? Or do we 'fast' in that minimalistic, modern way, where we make our own rules? Or is fasting only about food? If we paid more attention to the Not-so-Old Testament we might learn the true meaning of fasting. Here's what God said through the mouth of Isaiah about fasting:

"Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
   Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
   and to descendants of Jacob their sins.
For day after day they seek me out;
   'Why have we fasted,' they say,
   'and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
   and you have not noticed?'
"Yet on the day of your fasting,
you do as you please and exploit all your workers.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen?
   Only a day for the people to humble themselves?
Is that what you call a fast,
   a day acceptable to the Lord?
"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
   and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
   and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the
hungry and to provide the poor
wanderer with shelter -
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
   and not to turn away from your neighbour?
Then your light will break like the dawn,
   and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
   and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
   you will cry for help, and he will say:
Here am I.
"If you stop pointing the finger and speaking malice,
   and if you attend to the hungry
   and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
   and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
   he will satisfy your needs
   and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
   like a spring whose waters never fail.
                             (Isaiah, chapter 58)

Don't misunderstand. The Isaiah passage is not telling us not to fast; it's telling us that our fasting is incomplete if it's not accompanied by works of mercy and social justice. Saint John Chrysostom said much the same in many of his sermons. And he especially liked to focus on fasting from gossip! He knew well how easy it is for us to fall into that temptation: "Let the mouth also fast from shameful and hateful speech. For what does it profit if we fast from fish and fowl and yet bite and devour our brothers and sisters? The one who speaks evil eats the flesh of his brother and bites the body of his neighbour."

It's always about the neighbour; it's always about the 'other', isn't it? But how could it be otherwise? Jesus himself became something, someone 'other' than what he was. And so in the parable of the Sheep and Goats (Matthew 25:31-46) he tells us clearly that we find him in the least of his brothers and sisters.

Let your fasting this Lent open your heart and spiritual eyes to those who are the 'other', because it's there that Jesus awaits to embrace you also. It is the mystery of our salvation. The Lord became as one of us so we can see him in each other, that we all may be one on this painful and yet amazingly beautiful planet of ours. Life is such a gift, such a beautiful blessing and treasure. Fasting helps us appreciate what we have received. It shows us that we take things for granted. It helps us rise above instant gratification. You see, this is how we close our eyes to the 'other': when we take others for granted, even our loved ones; when we care so much for our own gratification that we can't even appreciate the quality and the workmanship that goes into those things we desire. Fasting means also taking time to appreciate the gift of food, to meditate on the time needed for our food sources to mature and reach our tables through the labour of hard-working people, our brothers and sisters in the Lord.

Fasting: a beautiful discipline of love! May you have a richly rewarding Lent. Let's travel together.

Fr. Constantine Sarantidis

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