CONTEMPLATIVE HISTORY: ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM ON FASTING

Among the practices we associate with Lent, fasting usually tops the list. Fasting from food and delicacies can help Christians remember the sacrifices of Jesus and can also be a form of preparation for Easter, the holiest day of the year.

St. John Chrysostom (349-407), preacher in the early Church, bids us be careful about fasting. He cautions against boasting and asks if we have remembered to fast not just from food but also from some of our more pernicious behaviors. In one of his homilies, 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.”

I love what Scot McKnight calls this “full-orbed” view of fasting. Here’s another taste (if you’ll forgive the pun):

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.

When we consider that fasting can include taking pity on the poor (which Chrysostom mentions in another passage) and being reconciled with our enemy, it can even be a justice issue.

In what ways might you consider fasting this season?

Sources: You can read about fasting and St. John Chrysostom here, and read the full text of some of his homilies here.

BOOK OF THE MONTH: THE ILLUMINED HEART

Week 3: Fasting
Illumined Heart cover

In The Illumined Heart, Frederica Mathewes-Green explores the wisdom and practices of the early Church.

Fasting is one such ancient practice. Mathewes-Green discusses details of how and when early Christians fasted. Just as important is her exploration of Christian attitudes toward the body:

Our bodies are a part of the creation God pronounced “very good,” and Jesus demonstrated God’s blessing on the human body when he became incarnate. He made the blessing more emphatic when he was resurrected, not as a mere spirit, but in a scar-marked body capable of eating fish. He sealed the blessing in the Ascension, taking that body into the very courts of heaven.

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So why do we need to fast?

Our bodies are blessed, but we don’t know how to live harmoniously in them. We drive them like vehicles, use them like tools to dig pleasure, and in the process damage them and distort our capacity to understand them. Fasting disciplines help us quiet these impulsive demands, so that we can better hear what they need and how they are meant to work. It is a turning toward health, a way of honoring creation and preparing for eternity.

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Read more.

For reflection:

Mathewes-Green week 3