Among the practices we associate with Lent, fasting usually tops the list. Fasting from food and delicacies can be a form of preparation for Easter. We respond with our body to our soul’s hunger for God and for new spiritual life. More recently, fasting from social media has become popular.
Yet St. John Chrysostom (c. 349-407), Archbishop of Constantinople and early Church Father, bids us be careful about fasting. He recommends the practice wholeheartedly, devoting several sermons to its benefits. But he also has words of caution. He warns against boasting and asks if we have remembered to fast not just from food but also from some of our more pernicious behaviors. “For the honor of fasting consists not in abstinence from food, but in withdrawing from sinful practices,” he said. In Homily XVI (Homilies on the Statues), Chrysostom writes:
It is common for every one to ask in Lent, how many weeks each has fasted; and some may be heard saying they have two, others three, and others that they have fasted the whole of the weeks. But what advantage is it, if we have gone through the fast devoid of works? If another says, “I have fasted the whole of Lent,” you should say, “I had an enemy, but I was reconciled; I had a custom of evil-speaking, but I put a stop to it; I had a custom of swearing, but I have broken through this evil practice.”
In his book, Fasting, Scot McKnight calls this a “full-orbed” view of fasting because it’s a way of life, not merely a limited and temporary practice. Here’s another taste (if you’ll forgive the pun) from St. Chrysostom:
Do not just let 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 pure from theft and avarice. Let the feet fast by ceasing from running to the unlawful spectacles . . . Let the mouth fast as well from disgraceful speeches and railing.
Chrysostom also mentions that fasting can include serving those in need: “Do you fast? Prove it by your good works . . . If you see a poor man, take pity on him!” The point of a fast is not to endure a temporary privation, but to enter a new way of life. The fast goes on, even when Lent is over and we’re all stuffing our faces again.
I love Chrysostom’s emphasis on serving and on being reconciled with our enemies. He seems to imply that he’s not even going to believe that you’re fasting unless you’re ALSO looking out for your neighbor. Fasting can be not just a path to spiritual growth, but a means of justice as well.
In what ways might you consider fasting this season?