Forgive me for not writing every day. There are times when it is best to keep quiet. Drinking a couple of glasses of “SHUT UP AND LISTEN” tends to help me stay out of trouble. I am an African-American Baptist Pastor and serious inquirer of Orthodox Christianity. I am in enough trouble as it is :)!
We Protestants do make attempts at fasting during Lent such as giving up one or two food items during the week. For us, it is a form of self-discipline in honor of the fact that Jesus gave his life on the cross for our salvation. Thus, we should give up something as well to show our loyalty and devotion to him. It isn’t uncommon for older denominations to hold special Lenten services as well. For my denomination, giving up something for 40 weekdays before Easter is a new practice that is not shared by everyone. Some of us piously state that we are fasting from fasting. Such an attitude shows ignorance of the scriptures, Christian history, and an unwillingness to walk with God in humility. Those who fast only from caviar, lobster, too much salt, or too many sweets are merely mocking true faith as they can’t afford these things economic and healthwise. But, for those of us who do put aside meats (and other items) as part of increasing attention on Christ in prayer and almsgiving to celebrate our Lord’s Resurrection, sincere steps are greatly rewarded. Those who by medical restrictions can do only a limited fast can still increase their prayers and works of love to others.
One of the key purposes of keeping the Great Lenten Fast (and every other fast in the Orthodox cycle) is to remind us of our reliance on God. It is easy to forget about His divine providence when we are bombarded with super-sized fast food offerings, all you can eat buffets, and cooking shows (aka “food porn”). Food, especially when well prepared, is a good thing and necessary for our survival. Our problem is that we indulge in the stuff, frequently the most unhealthy forms of it. We use it as a status symbol as we boast about what restaurant we went to, what we ordered, and what we cooked on the grill (OUCH!!!!! That was my right foot). We tend to eat for reasons of comfort or to hide from issues that are better solved by prayer and wise counsel. So, eating is both a basic need and a gateway that brings out our arrogance, selfishness, and self-reliance. It is no wonder why the fall of man was brought about in this ungodly fashion:
So when the woman saw the tree was good for food, was pleasant to the eyes, and the tree beautiful to contemplate, she took its fruit and ate. She also gave it to her husband with her and he ate. (Genesis 3:6)
Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ succeeded where Adam & Eve failed. He was reliant on the Father to see him through his period of total self-denial (at least Adam & Eve could have indulged in everything else). As He replied to the greatest of serpents:
“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'” (Matthew 4:4)
With the reliance on God rather than his ability to satisfy his belly, Jesus was able to walk in humility (“Do not tempt the Lord your God.”), complete obedience (“You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.”), properly use the scriptures to His faith (“It is written …” ), and rebuke the tempter (“Away with you, Satan!”). Fasting is a vital key in imitating Christ.
This is why the early church fathers gave directions on keeping the fast. Firstly that it is not a legalistic requirement for salvation, but a wise practice in spiritual growth. The very young and old, ill, and pregnant and nursing women need not fast. If in a strange land and someone shows hospitality, eat what is given to you. Eat grains, fruits, nuts, and vegetables (since shellfish were considered trash at the time, they are permitted) for the sake of basic health. But, do not indulge with even these simple foods. Avoid all meats, dairy products, fish with a backbone, olive oil, and wine. On a feast day in the midst of a fast, the latter three are permitted. With the dietary directions, increase the time spent in prayer. With money that would have been spent on expensive food, give to those in need. Jesus destroyed the power of death by his death. By His resurrection, we have hope to be children of the heavenly Father. As He prepared for His earthly ministry, let us likewise show our reliance on God by keeping the fast.
To my fellow Protestant believers, our Easter celebration is right around the corner. We have a right to be joyous and eat well. There is no need for us to all the sudden try to keep Great Lent this year. But, read and learn about Orthodoxy and what the church says about fasting throughout the year. Meet and make friends with a priest or devout believer (bishops are cool too) and let them explain how keeping the fast helps them in their walk with the Lord and is a part of their overall journey.