By Bethany Bell
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.”
For many Advent is a time of parties and festivities putting fasting at complete odds with the season. But the Church calls for Advent to be a time of penance, a small Lent if you will. So, naturally if we are talking about penance fasting comes up. The Old Testament is full of passages talking about fasting. Moses fasted for 40 days and 40 nights before God wrote the Commandments, in 2 Samuel they “mourned and wept and fasted” and there are many verses in the Psalms referring to fasting, like Psalm 69:10, “When I weep and fast, I must endure.” We also find fasting spread across the New Testament in both the Gospels, Acts, and St. Paul’s writings. What do all of these passages and the coming of the Incarnate Christ have in common? Why would the Church point us to fasting during Advent?
I think the most simplest explanation can be found when we explore what fasting does to us both physically and spiritually. We have to keep in mind that we are “body-souls”; hence, what we do to our body can affect our soul and vise versa. That is, our souls are not trapped in the shell of a body - that’s dualism, which is a heresy. No, rather, our souls are mystically united with our bodies. For the body is holy and food is a gift from God. We do not afflict our bodies with fasting because we despise the body or food! However, ever since the Fall the disordered passions of the flesh are at enmity with our souls, taking the soul captive to these carnal desires, at the expense of ourselves and of others. The flesh can become for us an idol which we serve more than we serve God and our neighbor. Fasting reorients our body into its proper harmony with our soul and it respects the dignity of the body. St. Paul describes are bodies as ‘Temples of the Holy Spirit’ - a dwelling place for the Most High King! Keeping that in mind, we can look at how fasting helps us prepare this dwelling place.
I don’t handle hunger well. I am a poster child for what ‘hangry’ looks like! My husband, children, sister, and parents will all confirm this. When faced with fasting I typically grumble and drag my feet about the whole ordeal. But it is everywhere in the Bible, the Saints LOVE to fast so I knew I needed to right my attitude and fast as I’m called. This year, my family and I have embarked on a new journey with our faith and it landed us at the local Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. St. Ambrose once said, “When I am at Rome, I fast on Saturday; when I am at Milan I do not. Follow the custom of the Church where you are.” We followed St. Ambrose’s advice and decided to fast as our fellow Greek Catholics do by striving to participate in the Nativity Fast, also called the St. Philip’s Fast this year. This fast lasts for 40 days from November 15th to Christmas Eve. You can imagine my trepidation. To gear up for the fast I started reading about why and how fasting helps make room for the Holy Spirit. Through my reading I stumbled upon a passage that said something along the lines that fasting for yourself is called a diet and fasting for the Lord is called grace. Grace allows us to give up the flesh in the name of the Lord. Grace allows us to empty ourselves and feel that physical hunger and to persevere when all we want to do is have a double cheeseburger with a large fry! Friends, grace is what allows us to have a triumphant Advent.
Tying fasting to Lent I think is easier for most people. We fast to deny ourselves in reparation for our sins and to heal our wounded hearts. Through fasting our impurities our swallowed by the life-giving Passion of our Lord who trampled death by death and has restored life to those in the tombs. How does fasting fit in with the joyous time of Advent? Advent is preparing us not just for the birth of Christ, but it is also preparing us for the beginning of our salvation story. We fast to empty ourselves of the guilty pleasures, of habitual sin, and of excess attachments to have room for the Word made Flesh. Every hunger pain we feel can turn our heart and mind to the Lord. Soon we will be praying unceasingly as called and what healing we would have! Our Lord Jesus Christ calls us to live radically different than the world - to be “in the world but not of the world”. And we do so with confidence because Christ has conquered the world, sin, death, and the devil through His Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection. Currently the world spends this preparation time as primarily a loud party ending on Christmas Day. Yet, the Church calls us to quiet the noise of the demons, the flesh, and the world, to turn inward to the One who lives within us, and to wait in joyful anticipation of the birth of our Savior. As some demons can only be cast out by prayer and fasting, let us silence the noise of the flesh, the world, and the devil with the weapon of fasting as we wait in awe of the mystery of God made Man.
Saint Paul of Thebes
Fasting should always be done with prudence and guidance. All spiritual disciplines should be done with love. If done in love, the fruit of fasting will be humility. However, if not done in love and with prudence, there is the risk of doing too much such that it can be more harmful, tempting us to pride. If you are thinking of taking on a more difficult fast than prescribed by the Church, please seek advice from your priest, spiritual director or a close friend. This act of humility will repel any demon looking to tempt you to pride. Keep in mind that when we fast we are going to war with the enemy of our souls. Pay attention to the movements of your heart while fasting and do not let the evil one deceive you. The Desert Fathers discuss how even holy disciplines, like fasting, can be harmful to us if the outcome of such a discipline results in us becoming boastful. It would be better to break our spiritual disciplines, in recognition of our weakness of pride, than to be puffed up over what we think we have accomplished by our own strength. Fasting is not a personal accomplishment. We do not get prideful when we take medication for an illness. So why would we get prideful for taking the medication of fasting for the illness of our disordered hearts? Rather, fast with love for God and you will profit. Fast for show and you will suffer loss. Our Lord warns us of the danger of fasting “like the hypocrites”. Let not your right hand know what your left hand is doing.
Also, please note that the Church exempts young children, those who are pregnant, breastfeeding, ill, who work physically demanding jobs, and those over 60 years of age. Further, if fasting would be perceived as an offense to a neighbor serving you at table, do not fast. The Church considers fasting to be the reduced amount of food eaten from normal. It currently defines this as one meal a day, and two smaller meals which if added together would not exceed the main meal in quantity. The fast is broken by eating between meals and drinks which could be considered food (milk shakes, but not milk). But don’t be scrupulous; pay more attention to the spirit of the fast, than to the letter. I encourage you all to add at least one fast day per week until Christmas. Wednesday and Friday are traditionally held as fast days for Eastern Catholics to remember both the Mystical Supper and Passion of our Lord. If two days per week is too much, have your remaining two Fridays be spent in emptying yourselves to make room for the Holy Spirit.
I pray you feel the hunger pains fasting brings so that your soul will rejoice in your “yes” to empty yourself so that you can be filled with the Lord. Remember to be like Mary, the Magi and St. Simeon and open your heart to the joyful anticipation of the infant Christ.