Every year the Orthodox Church proclaims a Great Fast before the Feast of PASCHA. We also are well aware that there is a right way and a wrong way to fast, just as there is a right and wrong way to pray or give to charity (Matthew 6:1-18). God tells us through the Prophet Isaiah that He rejects a fast that is just about ritually humbling oneself – bowing and scraping, putting on sackcloth, doing prostrations. God wants a fast that changes our hearts and yields righteousness, justice and mercy. God does not bless a fast that is about changing diet or leads to self flagellation. If self-abasement does not lead to mercy and justice for the oppressed, it is not part of a godly fast.
“Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then your light shall break forth like the morning,
Your healing shall spring forth speedily,
And your righteousness shall go before you;
The glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
You shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’
“If you take away the yoke from your midst,
The pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
If you extend your soul to the hungry
And satisfy the afflicted soul,
Then your light shall dawn in the darkness,
And your darkness shall be as the noonday.
The LORD will guide you continually,
And satisfy your soul in drought,
And strengthen your bones;
You shall be like a watered garden,
And like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.
While the Orthodox do not read this Isaiah passage at the beginning of Great Lent, we will read it on the sixth and final Wednesday of Great Lent. On the first Monday of Great Lent we do sing this hymn which echoes the concerns which the Lord God spoke to us through His Prophet Isaiah:
LET US PRESENT A GOOD FAST, WELL PLEASING TO THE LORD!
A TRUE FAST IS ALIENATION FROM THE EVIL ONE;
THE HOLDING OF ONE’S TONGUE, THE LAYING ASIDE OF ALL ANGER, THE REMOVAL OF ALL SENSUALITY,
OF ACCUSATION, FALSEHOOD AND SINS OF SWEARING.
THE WEAKENING OF THESE WILL MAKE THE FAST TRUE AND WELL PLEASING.
The good fast is not focused on what foods we eat or don’t eat but rather is focused on pleasing God. When we fast we are to alienate Satan – his ways are not to be part of our lives. We are to purify our hearts – stop swearing and cursing, curb your anger, control your lust and greed, giving in neither to your sexual desires nor to your desire to control others. Eliminate lying to yourself and to others. If we can even weaken these sins – even if we cannot completely stop them – we will have a true fast which is well pleasing to God.
One other hymn calls to mind the Gospel Parable of Lazarus and the rich man:
Spitting out the food of the rich, come, let us fast with Lazarus, that we also may be comforted in the bosom of Abraham. (1st Tuesday of Great Lent, Matins Canon)
The hymn creates a rather vivid image of us not avoiding certain foods but particularly spitting out in projectile fashion the food of the rich. This means not particularly gourmet foods, but any food which is excessive – beyond what is needed – and is thus prepared and eaten at the expense of the poor who have nothing. We are to use the time of Great Lent to simplify our menus and then give to the poor the extra money we would normally spend on food for ourselves. We will find ourselves comforted in the bosom of Abraham only when we take the poor into our own pantries.