Fast and unity
By protopresbyter Thomas Vamvinis
Fast is associated with the most critical phases of the history of mankind. Its abolition by Adam and Eve in Paradise is the starting point of all hardships. Following that, the most negative human expressions towards God and His law were the result of satiation and inebriation, while the highest ascensions and the most sacred experiences were (and still are) connected with fasting.
Fast, which was given as an exercise of our self-governance in Paradise , passed over to the Righteous and the Prophets of the Old Testament as a weapon for freedom, in answer to the pressurizing needs of the body. St. John the Forerunner, the leading figure amongst the prophets and the abstinent par excellence, showed the true meaning of fast through his work and revealed the spiritual wealth of voluntary deprivation. He showed, that is, that fast is the "forerunner of grace". Fasting opens the door so that Christ can enter inside us. It does not entertain negation or hate towards the creation; on the contrary, it seeks its restoration and glorification. It is a fight of dominance over material needs, an effort to free the created from the bonds of creatability. This accomplishment, of course, is not achieved by applying human powers. It is the work of the Divine Grace with the synergy of man.
The fight of fast, when carried out under Orthodox conditions and not as a Buddhist attitude, is the gate for grace. St. Basil the Great is very expressive on this point: "If you can abstain from filling your belly, then you will go to paradise, if not you will prey to death." Spiritual death is the result of satiation, while the Paradise of grace is the fruit of inclusive abstinence.
This text, however, looks into another dimension of Christian fast to which we do not usually pay attention. It is the experience of the unity of the ecclesiastical Body.
We usually see fast as an individual achievement of our will, without any social- ecclesiastical dimensions. The fast of Orthodox Christians, though, is an ecclesiastical act. We fast as members of the Church. It is a way of life taught by Christ and His Apostles and loved by all Saints. But all the things that Christ taught and were loved by the Saints constitute the foundations of the unity of the Church. This is why fast is an important means through which we experience its unity.
There are two ways to look into this truth:
1. When we fast following the rule of the Church, we are connected with its members in a common way of life. There is communication and unity, of psychological value in the beginning due to the feeling that the fight we conduct is a common one for all the conscientious members of the Church. We freely obey the Church which is fasting. When we violate the rule without any logical reason, we break its unity. We choose autonomy and oddity. We question the validity and the spiritual content of its Rules.
We should add here that the Church with its Rules does not try to create a specific type of man equalizing all individual differences. Each person has their own personal characteristics. Each person is someone " different" that must not be lost in the multitude. The Rules of the Church aim at restoring the human person, at revealing this person from amidst the amorphous mass of material needs and freeing it from the ugliness of lusts. They want to vitalize the person " in the image of God" and this is why they delineate the area of spiritual death and keep the faithful away from it. There are no limits in the " area" of Divine life that the faithful seek to enter.
2. According to the hierarchical prayer of Christ, the unity of His students is consolidated in the sight of His glory. " And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one" ( John 17, 22 ). Fast, therefore, is the means through which we experience the unity of the Church to the extent that its application attracts the Grace of God.
According to the word of Christ, the reason for fast is the loss of Christ the Bridegroom: " but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then will they fast " (Mathew, 9, 15). According to Apostle Paul, abstinence –an aspect of which is abstinence from food- is the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians, 5, 22).
Consequently, freedom from food is an exercise during the period that the Bridegroom is "sought" as well as a physical condition, when His Spirit finds its place in man's heart. This progress from the quest of the Bridegroom to his entering our hearts is a progress from the division of the fragmented world to the unity expressed in the words " that they may be one, even as we are one" of the Hierarchical prayer of Christ.
The Orthodox fast is, therefore, an ecclesiastical work which forges the unity of the ecclesiastical body.