The Fast Pleasing to God

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Shout out, do not hold back!

Lift up your voice like a trumpet!

Announce to my people their rebellion,

to the house of Jacob their sins.

Yet day after day they seek me

and delight to know my ways,

as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness

and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;

they ask of me righteous judgments,

they delight to draw near to God.

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“Why do we fast, but you do not see?

Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,

and oppress all your workers.

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight

and to strike with a wicked fist.

Such fasting as you do today

will not make your voice heard on high.

Is such the fast that I choose,

a day to humble oneself?

Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,

and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?

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Will you call this a fast,

a day acceptable to the LORD?

Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,

and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

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Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,

and your healing shall spring up quickly;

your vindicator 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 for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,

the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

if you offer your food to the hungry

and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,

then your light shall rise in the darkness

and your gloom be like the noonday.

The LORD will guide you continually,

and satisfy your needs in parched places,

and make your bones strong;

and you shall be like a watered garden,

like a spring of water,

whose waters never fail.

(Isaiah 58:1-11)

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Isaiah’s commentary on fasting is read by the Orthodox at the end of Great Lent, but perhaps would have been a good reading at the beginning to remind us what Lent is about.  Coming at the end of Lent, it gives us a chance to look back over our spiritual effort of the past 40 days and whether we did a spiritual fast or whether we did nothing more than the very things the Prophet Isaiah says God hates.  We come to recognize that fasting in and of itself cannot produce righteousness in us, as we know from St Paul: Train yourself in godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come (1 Timothy 4:7-8). Or as he wrote to the Colossians: Why do you submit to regulations, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things which all perish as they are used), according to human precepts and doctrines? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting rigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body, but they are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh (2:20-23).

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St Basil the Great building on the logic of the Prophet Isaiah and on the writings of St Paul says this about fasting:

“Nonetheless, do not define the good derived from fasting only in terms of abstaining from food. For true fasting is being a stranger to vice.  Loose every bond of wickedness (Is 58:6). Let your neighbor grieve you; forgive him his debts.  Do not fast only to quarrel and fight (Is 58:4).  You do not devour meat, but you devour your brother.  You abstain from wine, but you have not mastered your arrogance.  You wait until evening to partake of food, but you spend your day judging others.  Woe to those who are drunk, but not with wine! (Is 51:21)  Anger is a drunken state of the soul because, like wine, it robs the soul of sense.  Sadness, too, is a drunken state because it drowns the mind.  Fear is another drunken state, when things happen that should not happen.  For it says: deliver my soul from fear of the enemy (Ps 64:2).  Generally speaking, since each of the passions disturbs the mind, each can rightly be called a drunken state of the mind.

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Think of the person who rages with anger, how he is drunk with the passions.  He lacks self-composure.  He lacks awareness of both himself and those around him.  As if in some nocturnal battle, he lunges at everyone and trips over everything.  He talks wildly and cannot be restrained.  He rails, he assaults, he menaces, he swears, he shouts, he erupts.  Flee this drunkenness! But neither should you give yourself over to the drunkenness that cones from wine.  Do not anticipate drinking water by drinking wine.  Do not let drunkenness initiate you into the fast.  Drunkenness is not the doorway to fasting.  After all, the doorway to righteousness is not rapaciousness, the doorway to moderation is not licentiousness, and to sum up, the doorway to virtue is not vice.  There is no other way to enter into fasting.  Drunkenness leads to licentiousness, sobriety to fasting.  The athlete prepares by training, the one who fasts by practicing self-control.” (ON FASTING AND FEASTS, pp 69-70)

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Basil sees outbursts of rage and anger to be just the same as being drunk, both are morally unacceptable.  He sees all the passions as being about the same ask drunkenness.  So for those who see drunkenness as reprehensible, they may feel morally superior because they rarely drink, but Basil would say, if you rage in anger, it is the equivalent of getting drunk.  If you allow your passions to control you – lust, greed, despondency, despair, hatred, etc. – you are really not any different morally than a drunk.

Basil in his final comments also is clearly criticizing those who think the way to prepare for the Great Fast is to engage in Mardi Gras – having a self-indulgent gourmandizing day as a step into Lent.  Basil is as blunt as he can be: drunkenness, overindulgence, and overeating will not lead to fasting but to sin.  And the same is true when the fast is comes to its conclusion.  If we practiced true fasting, the first thing we do at the end of Great Lent will not be to rush into overindulgence: drunkenness or overeating.  If we do engage in over consumption on the day the Fast ends, then we show we never understood the purpose of fasting to begin with.  Going ‘cold turkey’ on alcohol for fasting periods and then resuming over indulgence in non-fasting periods, is a pretty good sign that the person has a serious problem with alcohol.  Moderation in all things and at all times is the spiritual lesson of Great Lent.

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