Why we would benefit from reinvigorating the tradition of Abstinence and Fasting

Abstinence restricts us from eating meat and or dairy products.

Fasting is the abstinence from eating and drinking from midnight till noon with the possibility of drinking water and consuming medication only.

Proceeding any great feast, we have a tradition of fasting and abstinence. These are “obligations” and are the minimum requirements for Maronite’s. (Seek clarification from your Bishop for guidelines in various Eparchies in the jurisdiction of the expansion). This article will consider more closely why we should fast and abstain as a family.

What does our Scripture say about Abstinence and Fasting?

The tradition of abstinence and fasting originated from very early times and is referred to in Scripture. In the Old Testament we hear from Daniel.

I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks. Daniel 10:3

Moses also fasted and here there is a parallel with Christ:

So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments. Exodus 34:28 

Jesus fasted:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. Matthew 4:1-2

Regarding fasting Jesus tells us:

And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:16-17

What does our Eastern Tradition say about Abstaining and Fasting?

The key to abstinence is that each of us needs to examine what obstacles are getting in our way to get to Christ. We need to be prepared to distance ourselves from sin and compensate for those we have committed. Abstinence and fasting is not meant to be a momentarily change, if it done correctly it will permanently transform us.  It gives us the opportunity to prepare ourselves and refocus on the things that matter leading up to the Easter.

We are told that St Charbel would only live on small amounts of herbs. Fasting, abstinence, prayer and meditation have been an important part of our Maronite tradition.  Fasting and abstinence always comes before a great feast. It allows us to prepare ourselves spiritually for the feast.

Our Eastern Fathers have written extensively on the importance of fasting.

“Fasting is medicine.” St John Chrysostom declares in his beautiful homily on fasting.  He continues:

Fasting is the change of every part of our life, because the sacrifice of the fast is not the abstinence but the distancing from sins. Therefore, whoever limits the fast to the deprivation of food, he is the one who, in reality, abhors and ridicules the fast. Are you fasting? Show me your fast with your works. Which works? If you see someone who is poor, show him mercy. If you see an enemy, reconcile with him. If you see a friend who is becoming successful, do not be jealous of him! If you see a beautiful woman on the street, pass her by.

In other words, not only should the mouth fast, but the eyes and the legs and the arms and all the other parts of the body should fast as well. Let the hands fast, remaining clean from stealing and greediness. Let the legs fast, avoiding roads which lead to sinful sights. Let the eyes fast by not fixing themselves on beautiful faces and by not observing the beauty of others. You are not eating meat, are you? You should not eat debauchery with your eyes as well. Let your hearing also fast. The fast of hearing is not to accept bad talk against others and sly defamations.

Let the mouth fast from disgraceful and abusive words, because, what gain is there when, on the one hand we avoid eating chicken and fish and, on the other, we chew-up and consume our brothers?

St John Chrysostom is not discouraging fasting from food, but he insists that fasting and abstinence from food must be accompanied with fasting from sin.

The desert fathers and mothers saw abstinence and fasting as a way to temperance. It is a way to ‘declutter’. Abstinence and fasting allows us to focus on prayer and the needs of the soul rather than the body. When we get hungry or crave something during Lent, it is an opportunity to refocus the mind on the purpose of Lent. Fasting and abstinence makes us more attune to the spiritual and to our purpose. It also helps us to depend on God more fully and to have compassion for the poor and the hungry. Fasting reminds us of the first sin of Adam and Eve, who ate from the forbidden tree. By fasting from and abstinence from certain foods we can take the opportunity each time we are hungry to fast from sinning and doing evil.

Abstinence and fasting is also a way to do penance for our sins and unite our small sacrifice with Christ’s very large sacrifice for us.

Abstinence and fasting is a discipline that teaches us to gain control, because so often the source of our sin is a loss of control. By gaining control of something so simple as food, we can move to gain control of those things that really distancing us from God. So together with abstinence and fasting, you are encouraged to think about what it is that is blocking your way to Christ. If you only abstain and fast in Lent without a greater purpose of distancing yourself from a sin that is controlling your life, then fasting and abstinence will be nothing more than a diet. Lent is a time to pick your medicine, remove the obstacles and encounter Christ this Lent.

For Parents and Families

We have often spoken about the importance of families sacramentalising their homes and living within the season of the Church. Abstinence from meat and or dairy is the perfect way to bring Lent into your home. It signals to children that there is a preparation in the lead up to the feast and creates habits that many will keep with them for a lifetime.

We encourage you to bring your family together and explain why as a family you will fast and abstain as we have above.

There also some other real benefits for your family:

  • In a generation many of us have moved from a diet where meat and protein made up a small part of the diet (1 – 2 times a week) to overtaking our whole diet. This has often replaced vegetables and legumes. We can all benefit physically from regulating our meat and protein intake.
  • For many of us growing up in societies and communities where food is plentiful and so easily wasted, abstinence and fasting allows us to remember and teach our children that others in the world have very little. A generation of children is growing up thinking meat actually comes from the unlimited supply in the supermarket, rather than a real animal who has been slaughtered and which is part of God’s Creation. Fasting and abstinence is a reminder that we are a part of a wider humanity and part of Creation which we should never take for granted. It is for this reason that a commitment to abstinence and fasting should not mean replacing it with costly dinner eat outs or wasteful fast food. That would render the purpose pointless.
  • Consider growing some of your own vegetables in the lead up of Lent so that your family can understand the effort and resources that go into food. Food waste is a very real problem in many societies and one which goes against our Christian principles.

In the words of our beautiful Liturgy:

Behold the fast!
On this day it calls to us.
Come, O Christians, welcome it.
Let us open wide our hearts;
let us purify our thoughts.
May this fast be on our minds,
for through fasting we are cleansed
and are pardoned of our sins.
Through it we inherit life
and rejoice with all the saints.
Behold the fast!
Through it Christians win a crown.
Now prepare your heart and soul.
Fasting gives the spirit strength,
and it is a hidden sword
to ward off the Evil One.
Go to meet this fast with joy.
Welcome it into your lives,
that your spirit may have wings,
by which you will soar on high.

In Christ,
Theresa Simon

(Click here for the full text of St John Chrysostom’s beautiful homily on fasting)
St John Chrysostom’s Homily on Fasting