Fasting is far more than just an obligation or even a discipline; it is connected with the very mystery of life and death, of salvation and damnation.
“Fasting is a medicine.” — St. John Chrysostom
“The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” — Matthew 9:15
“What are you giving up for Lent?” While the question might be common in many Christian circles, it seems that answers to it are, well, increasingly creative. In fact, there are websites and books (with work sheets!) aplenty that offer “creative” suggestions for those trying to discern what needs to be given up, shut down, set aside, reduced, or eliminated altogether. And that’s fine, especially if it helps people take steps in spiritual growth. But the emphasis, with few exceptions, is usually on technique—on what to do and how to do it. What is often missing, unfortunately, is a theological core and foundational vision of what Lent is and how it reveals truths about ultimate things.
The great Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann, known especially for his books on liturgical theology, addressed these fundamental truths in his wonderful book Great Fast (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1969), published fifty years ago. What he seeks to do, right from the very opening page, is to present a challenging, even surprising at times, understanding of the season, beginning with the basic need for repentance. Schmemann notes that our lives are usually so hectic we “simply assume that all we have to do during Lent is abstain from certain foods, cut down on ‘entertainment’ ”—or, in today’s terms, social media—“go to Confession, be absolved by the priest” and then go on our way. Lent, Schmemann insists, is a “school of repentance” as well as a spiritual journey, the destination of which is Easter, the “Feast of Feasts.”
This is, of course, hardly news to serious believers. But Schmemann is only beginning, for he dives deep and then deeper, sometimes to the point that the reader may feel the need to come to the surface, as it were, gasping for air. One of the many wonderful qualities of the book is its direct and unblinking consideration of death (a topic that Schmemann wrote of often), and the fact—and it is, sadly, a fact, as I know from my own life—that we often fail to really see and celebrate Christ’s Resurrection “as something that happened and still happens to us” (emphasis in original). Put another way, we fail to live the divine life gifted to us at baptism. We let it slowly fade away from sloth and distraction; we watch it crash into the rocks of lust and pride, disappearing into the dark waters of our despair and selfishness. In our weakness, we forget about the divine life; we become lukewarm, or worse. Schmemann, as he does so often, put this in stark, harrowing terms:
We manage to forget even death and then, all of a sudden, in the midst of our ‘enjoying life’ it comes to us: horrible, inescapable, senseless. We may from time to time acknowledge and confess our various ‘sins,’ yet we cease to refer our life to that new life which Christ reveals and gives to us. Indeed, we live as if He never came. This is the only real sin, the sin of all sins, the bottomless sadness and tragedy of our nominal Christianity.
We live as if He never came. Those are haunting words at any time, but even more so at a time when the Catholic Church is reeling once again from regular news of abuse, cover ups, and corruption. And in this context, which can be overwhelming and even damaging to one’s faith, it is far too easy to live as if He never rose from the dead, never conquered death, and never really established a Church able to withstand the storms from without and the betrayals from within. But, as the Apostle Paul made clear to the struggling Christians in Corinth, the Resurrection really is an all-or-nothing proposition: “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (1 Cor 15:14).
How, then, to recover the vision of the new life—the fact that we who are baptized have been baptized into Christ’s death so we might walk in newness of life (Rom 6:1ff), and that we are, by God’s astounding, bountiful grace, actual children of God (1 John 3:1ff)? Schmemann’s answer to this question is simple: the liturgical worship of the Church. “And in the center of that liturgical life,” he writes, “as its heart and climax, as the sun whose rays penetrate everywhere, stands Pascha.”
And at the center of the center, if you will, is the Eucharist, the eschatological sacrament—that is, a true and real foretaste of the Kingdom and the marriage supper of the Lamb. Schmemann reflects:
The Church keeps a ‘watch’—she expects the Bridegroom and waits for Him in readiness and joy. Thus, the total fast is not only a fast of the members of the Church; it is the Church herself as fast, as expectation of Christ who comes to her in the Eucharist, who shall come in glory at the consummation of all time.
Schmemann develops several lines of thought here, but one is of particular interest: what is unique about Christian fasting. This is rooted in events depicted at the very beginning of the Old and New Testaments. The first is Adam’s “breaking of the fast” in the Garden of Eden—that is, Adam’s sin, when he and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which had been forbidden them by God’s command (Gen 2:8-17; 3:1-7). The “fasting” of Adam, prior to the Fall, was the refusal to grasp onto anything that would sever his communion with God; put positively, it was a whole-hearted and face-to-face relationship with God rooted in trust, love, and fidelity. In breaking the fast, Adam broke communion with God, and was mortally wounded.
The second event is the temptation of Christ for forty days in the desert, and which is the basis for the forty days of Lent. Schmemann sums up the difference between the Old Adam and the New Adam:
Adam was tempted and he succumbed to temptation; Christ was tempted and he overcame that temptation. The results of Adam’s failure are expulsion from Paradise and death. The fruits of Christ’s victory are the destruction of death and our return to Paradise.
In this context, fasting is shown to be far more than just an obligation or even a discipline; it is “connected with the very mystery of life and death, of salvation and damnation.” Sin is not just a breaking of rules or a rejection of a moral code, but “a mutilation of life given to us by God.” And this is why, Schmemann argues, the foundational story of the Fall is shown in the act of eating. Man, in turning away from God and grasping at a life “free” of God’s life, condemned himself to living “by bread alone.” So, man fell from divine life and divine love, and lives only a natural life, dependent on natural food, and doomed to die separated from God. I say “and divine love” because the nucleus of Adam’s sin was a turning away from divine love and a prideful clutching at self-love. This turning into oneself in selfish absorption is, in fact, a way of understanding hell, which is an arrogant severing of relationship—not just with God, but with everyone and, ultimately, everything.
The tragedy of Adam, writes Schmemann, is that he ate food for its own sake, apart from God and independent from the Source of all life and love. Adam failed to see that the world and all its good—including food—was created so that man could have communion with God. And in doing so, Adam showed that “he believed that food had life in itself and that he, by partaking of that food, could be like God”—that is, have life in himself. In a striking phrase, Schmemann says that Adam “believed in food, whereas the only object of belief, of faith, of dependence is God and God alone.”
We remain slaves of “food,” of all those things in which we knowingly or unthinkingly place our trust over and against God. Fasting, and the hunger that comes with it, helps us to shed that dependence, revealing our aching hunger and our essential dependence on God. Thus, we read:
The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’ ” (Lk 4:4-5)
And yet—and yet!—we do try to live by bread alone. By money alone. By power alone. By sex and pleasure alone. Yet Christ alone saves us from this tyranny of sin and death. And fasting, which is so essential to Lent, says Schmemann, is “our entrance and participation in that experience of Christ Himself by which He liberates us from total dependence on food, matter, and the world.”
Fasting from natural food demands an increase in supernatural food. And the hunger we feel in our bodies should intensify our hunger for the Word of God, for Holy Communion, and for the presence of the Spirit. Still, as St. Pope John Paul II explained in his final encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (2003), we live with a profound “eschatological tension” between the first and second comings of Christ the King. Pilgrims on earth, we are called to be citizens of heaven; citizens of this world, we must grow in grace and spiritual maturity so we can better work for both justice in this world and salvation in the next. As the late pontiff wrote:
This is an aspect of the Eucharist which merits greater attention: in celebrating the sacrifice of the Lamb, we are united to the heavenly “liturgy” and become part of that great multitude which cries out: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev 7:10). The Eucharist is truly a glimpse of heaven appearing on earth. It is a glorious ray of the heavenly Jerusalem which pierces the clouds of our history and lights up our journey.
A significant consequence of the eschatological tension inherent in the Eucharist is also the fact that it spurs us on our journey through history and plants a seed of living hope in our daily commitment to the work before us. Certainly the Christian vision leads to the expectation of “new heavens” and “a new earth” (Rev 21:1), but this increases, rather than lessens, our sense of responsibility for the world today. I wish to reaffirm this forcefully at the beginning of the new millennium, so that Christians will feel more obliged than ever not to neglect their duties as citizens in this world. Theirs is the task of contributing with the light of the Gospel to the building of a more human world, a world fully in harmony with God’s plan (pars 20-21).
In short, we must live as if He came, for so He did. And Lent is the perfect time to refocus on His coming in the past, His coming in the present, and His future coming in glory.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Christ in the Wilderness” (1872) by Ivan Kramskoi (1837-1887), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.