It has been said again and again in the last few days that during this time of Lent people will try to give up something they love. One gives up chocolate, the other gives up ice-cream, the other tries to give up smoking.
No question that all of these things are good and the effort is well intended, but the original purpose of Great Lent as the first and major fasting period established by the early Christian Church (as early as the second century) went beyond what we speak about today.
The forty-day fast was seen by the early Christians primarily as a spiritual journey, similar to the journey of the Hebrew people coming out of slavery in Egypt. In a way, they saw themselves coming out of the slavery of paganism (the worship of the idols - the Gods of the ancient Greeks and Romans, whom they now recognized as the evil demons). They also considered this time of fasting and prayer as the time of spiritual struggle for liberation from their sins and the evil passions.
Great Lent has other elements as well: We abstain from certain foods as a spiritual exercise for our bodies and souls. By taking control of our desires for food, we practice our ability to also take control of our evil desires and make corrections on our path in life. By abstaining from food, we exercise our ability to also abstain from sins.
The practice of fasting is indeed a most ancient one. The most profound example of fasting in the Old Testament was that of Moses, as he conversed with God on Mount Sinai: "He was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water". (Exod. 34:28) He had ascended the mountain purifying his body, soul and mind. When he returned to the Jewish people bearing the plaques of the Ten Commandments inscribed by the finger of God he was filled with the Glory of God. His face was shining like the sun and the people could not even look at him (Exod. 34:29ff). This came about as Moses reached the ultimate state of purification (Catharsis) which allowed him to become a dwelling place of the Uncreated Light of God. Fasting was an essential element leading to this purification and enabling him to speak to God. (Exod. 34:29)
The New Testament period begins with a man who lived on locusts and wild honey, John the Baptist (Matt. 3:4; Mark 1:6) who was granted the gift to recognize the Messiah, the Lamb of God and point to Him.
Finally, the practice of fasting was sanctioned by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself when He fasted for forty days in the desert, before he embarked on His earthly ministry; He began His fight against the devil (Matt. 4:2) with a strict form of fasting accompanied by prayer.
An obvious goal of fasting is to help us keep the commandments of God. It is a form of spiritual training or askesis, which helps us acquire spiritual discipline. Fasting helps us detach ourselves from the earthly pleasures of the flesh. It helps us discipline our fleshly desires and take control of our passions. By managing to control what goes into our mouth and stomach we train ourselves to be able to control what comes out of our mouth and heart. Through the discipline of fasting we may also become able to control our eyes and avoid looking at things which will aggravate our passions further. It will enable us to take control our anger and above all our pride. Fasting (when applied with the help of an experienced spiritual elder) can help us take control even of our thoughts.
As we embark on this spiritual journey for the transformation of the old man in us, let’s not forget that we do all of this for Christ. Fasting in an opportunity to remember the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross for us.
Recently a young man who decided this year to try to fast from meat throughout the whole Lent for the first time in his life explained his decision this way: "I will do this for Christ. If He died for me, this is a small thing to do for Him."