A Diary of the Apostles Fast (First Thursday): Do I Have To?

‘ But,  I want to do this.’

Rita Madden from the podcast, “Fasting Is Medicine” 

The answer to the question is obvious.  No, I do not have to fast.  I am a Baptist.  Our doctrine and dogma does not teach a need to refrain from any food any time of the year.  Our radical reformed denominational position is that ritual fasting is a tradition of man that Jesus did not teach and, therefore, should be ignored as some Roman Catholic superstitious practice.  In my African-American heritage, our people were deprived and suffered much under slavery.  So, why should we deny ourselves the pleasure of eating what we want, when we want it, as often, and as much as we can?  No, I don’t have to fast.  According to doctrine and culture, “I ain’t got no business fasting.”

Wake Dawn (© John Gresham)

But, I want to fast.  First of all, Jesus did it and did not speak against the practice.  The only guideline he gave about fasting is that we don’t make a boastful show of it and act on fast days as any other day.  Read Matthew 4:1-11 and the corresponding stories in Mark and Luke.  As a result of his fast, Jesus was able to withstand the temptations Satan tried him with and God sent angels down to minister to him.  I ask, who doesn’t want the ability to withstand temptation and have God’s mercy on us?  While Jesus does not make his fast a requirement, the spiritual benefits of abstaining from food for a period of time does have positive benefits to our souls, when applied to faith and aided with prayer ( Matthew 17:19-21; see my previous article).  It makes sense to fast.

It makes sense to fast as prescribed by the Orthodox Church.  We Protestants may give up one or two things we shouldn’t indulge in for Lent.  For pregnant and nursing women and those whose diets are directed by a physician, such limited fasting makes sense.  But, for the rest of us, “giving something up for Lent” falls short of the point.  Refraining from food should produce a hunger and the hunger should drive us to prayer and reliance on the Father who adopted us as his children through his Only Begotten Son with the grace of the Holy Spirit.  Substituting huge portions of chicken for beef doesn’t do it.  The early church fathers were wise enough to see that we needed something to sustain us and suggested eating only simple foods such as vegetables, legumes, and bread.  We need some oil (fat) as well and a little fish for animal protein.  Rather than indulge in  vegan food substitution, they taught that we should stop eating while still hungry and never eat until we are full.

As I said in a previous post, the calendar of Orthodox fasting and feasting is just like hiking a trail.  When the Apostles Fast is over on the Feast of the Apostles.  After these major points, I continue to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays (commemorating the betrayal and crucifixion of our Lord) until the next major point (the fast and feast of Mary).  And there are a couple of feast days thrown in the midst of those fast (the Nativity of John the Baptist in June and the Transfiguration in August).  The Christmas Fast (Nov. 15th thru Dec. 24th) will be tough to cope with because of Thanksgiving and those holiday food temptations.  But, there is the feast of St Nicholas  in early December and no weekday fast between Christmas and Epiphany.  Then, it is Lent and Easter again (with a couple of other feast and fast to observe).  It may seem like a lot to keep up with for most of us Protestants.  But, I think following such a cyclical pattern keeps me looking forward to God’s grace and mercy all year-long rather than waiting around for Christmas and Easter.

So, as one Orthodox mother told her neighbors, “But, I want to do this.”  Bishops and priest can’t judge their parishioners on whether or not they do it.  Surely, no officers in the Baptist church will threaten to remove my ordination for grilling some pork chops this evening.  This is a choice I made on my own free will.

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