From the outside, fasting can seem like a pretty boring thing. People change their diet all the time; it rarely makes headlines. It’s an action that carries no more significance in itself than using a new brand of toothpaste, or changing phone carriers. Fasting, as a purely dietary practice, is quite possibly one of the most boring activities in the world.
But to conclude from this that fasting is boring, is rather like concluding that every movie with blazing guns and fast cars must be good. Even Sunday School children know that the Christian practice of fasting has never been a mere change of diet; the act of giving up certain kinds of food – namely the bloody kind, prepared in abattoirs and slaughterhouses – is symbolic of a much more mystical endeavour. What I want to argue here is that fasting, far from being a mere selfish and ritualistic supersition, is actually a mystical way of healing the world. St. Basil, in his fantastic Homily on Fasting, explains that in an important sense, the world is fallen precisely because we failed to fast:
“[Fasting] is as old as humanity itself; it was prescribed in Paradise. It was the first commandment that Adam received: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ye shall not eat.” Through the words “ye shall not eat” the law of fasting and abstinence is laid down. If Eve had fasted from the tree, we would not now be in need of this fast.“
In the ancient Christian mind, a fallen world meant a hungry world. God had made humans for communion with Himself; no other food would do. And so, when the world fell away from God, men were cut off from the source of their life. Their souls grew twisted; instead of trying to live and breathe the immortal and infinite God, they turned to the finite and corruptible creation for nourishment. In a world without the infinite God, every man is for himself. Fallen man became a monster, willing to fight and kill and steal in order to secure his own survival. St. Athanasius describes this tragic transformation and its horrifying consequences:
“God had not only made [humans] out of nothing, but had also graciously bestowed on them His own life by the grace of the Word. Then, turning from eternal things to things corruptible, by counsel of the devil, they had become the cause of their own corruption in death … [Mankind] had in their sinning surpassed all limits; for, having invented wickedness in the beginning and so involved themselves in death and corruption, they had gone on gradually from bad to worse, not stopping at any one kind of evil, but continually, as with insatiable appetite, devising new kinds of sins. Adulteries and thefts were everywhere, murder and raping filled the earth …” (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 1.5)
Such are the tragic consequences of sin: death and hunger and horror fill the world. We live in a world tortured by famine, both material and spiritual; so many in our world lack food, water, happiness, love, support and self-esteem. And here, Christians are able to identify powerfully with ‘humanist’ expressions of horror at human injustice. Humanists and Christians and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists all cry out with one, horrified voice in defence of those who have been harmed by literal greed and avarice.
The Christian response however, does not stop at horror. Christ indeed wept at Lazarus’ tomb, but He did not walk away until Lazarus was could walk away with Him. Christ’s whole mission on Earth was to heal the world by His suffering; a Coptic Fraction prayer, prayed to Christ as His Body is broken for distribution, expresses this idea beautifully:
“He hungered to feed us, and thirsted to quench our thirst. He went up on the cross naked to clothe us with the cloak of His righteousness. He opened His side with a spear that we enter and dwell in the throne of His grace, and that His blood may flow from His body and wash away our sins.”
That was Christ’s mission: to save us through His suffering. And of course, everything a Christian does (including fasting) is to be modelled after Christ, the Perfect Man and New Adam, who fasted for forty days in the wilderness. Fasting then, is not simply a private action; if it is truly a way for the Christian to perform the healing work of Christ in His own life (Col 1:24), then it is performed for the healing of the whole world. Christ hungered to feed those who could not feed themselves. And likewise, a fasting Christian starves herself, not as some arbitrary exercise in self-punishment, but so that her hunger can feed the starving. This idea has been present since the earliest days of Christianity; in the 2nd century, ‘The Shepherd of Hermas’, adjoins fasting Christians to use the money they would have spent on lavish meals to feed widows. St. John Chrysostom, in his typically eloquent fashion, proclaims:
“Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works. If you see a poor man, take pity on him. If you see a friend being honoured, do not envy him. Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eye and the ear and the feet and the hands and all the members of our bodies. Let the hands fast, by being free of greed. Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin. Let the eyes fast, by disciplining them not to glare at that which is sinful. Let the ear fast, by not listening to evil talk and gossip. Let the mouth fast from foul words and unjust criticism. For what good is it if we abstain from birds and fish, but bite and devour our brothers?” (Hom. on the Statues 3.11)
In other words, if you are truly fasting, you must opt out of the cannibalism of sin that has turned Paradise into a prison of suffering. A fasting Christian has resolved to slay his hunger, and never let it harm another. He will not even take an animal’s life to save his own. No matter what benefits he might reap by joining in the violent orgy of cannibalism that this ancient paradise has become, he would sooner die than draw a single drop of blood to save himself. In a world full of lack, the fasting Christian will die of hunger, before he steals another man’s food. And that is the ‘mind of Christ’: the healing mystery which saves the world and breaks the destructive cycle of sin (1 Jn 3:8,9).
Understood this way, fasting could never be reduced to a mundane, cultural habit. It is a declaration of war; an act of rebellion against ‘spiritual hosts of wickedness’ (Eph 6:12) who sustain the spiritual cannibalism that tortures our world. Like Christ, we will lay down our lives for our friends (1 Jn 3:16). Like Christ, we offer our wilful hunger to God, in the hope that He will use it to heal the world which we have broken. In St. Basil’s words:
“Since we did not fast, we fell from Paradise; let us, therefore, fast in order that we might return thither.”