Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” – Genesis 3:1-3
In two recent interviews, Frederica Mathewes-Green talked about Orthodox spiritual disciplines. She concluded the first interview, with ExploreFaith.org’s Jon Sweeney, by sharing her own spiritual practices, including daily prayers and fasting. In the second interview, with Ryan Hamm of the Christian Vision Project, she once again discussed prayer – specifically, the Jesus Prayer – and fasting. The two interviews, despite the similarity of subject matter, are not redundant – there is much to say on these important subjects!
I also have been thinking about fasting and prayer in recent weeks. In this post I will start with fasting. A post or two on prayer will follow.
Tomorrow in the Orthodox Church we begin the third of our four fasting seasons. The Fast of the Apostles is a variable-length fast that begins immediately after the Octave of Pentecost and continues until the Feast of Saints Peter & Paul, on 29 June. It is somewhat more relaxed than Lent, with a number of days when fish, wine, and olive oil are permitted.
Today, in preparation for the fast, I read a short article, “The Meaning of Fasting in the Orthodox Church,” by Fr. Milan Savich, which explains why fasting is the first of spiritual disciplines for Orthodox Christians. Citing authorities from St. Basil the Great to Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Fr. Milan makes the point that man’s fallen state began with the breaking of a fast commanded by God – abstention from the fruit of the tree in the midst of the Garden of Eden. St. Basil wrote, “Because we did not fast, we were chased out of Paradise; let us fast now, so that some day we may return there.” Similarly, St. Isaac of Syria said, “The first commandment given to our nature in the beginning was the fasting from food, and in this the head of our race (Adam) fell. Those who wish to attain the fear of God, therefore, should begin to build where the building was first fallen. They should begin with the commandment to fast.”
This is where our Lord himself began. Just as Genesis opened with Adam’s breaking of the fast, the Gospel opens with Christ’s keeping of a fast for forty days in the wilderness, immediately following his baptism. Where Adam had succumbed to Satan’s temptation to eat, Christ, in facing the same temptation, gained his first victory over Satan. Thus began his campaign to dethrone Satan and reverse the effects of the fall. In fasting, we learn to participate with Christ in resisting the temptations of Satan.
There is, of course, more to fasting than simply abstaining from food and drink, and Fr. Milan’s article explores the many aspects of fasting. (Thanks to Kevin Burt of into the light for the tip on Fr. Milan’s article.)