“..Let us fast, and love our neighbor, and love one another; for His mercy is forever, You should observe the Sabbath, and do righteous deeds [St. Yared Tsome Deggua Zewarade]
Have you ever wondered why you have to fast? Where does fasting originate? How long ago? It may be true from our surroundings that many people fast for different reasons; some to gain favor from God, some to be a part of the large group, and others because they were ordered to do so and others for dieting purposes. Nevertheless, the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church has some biblical purposes for fasting.
In the Fetha Negest (Law of the Kings) fasting is defined as follows: "Fasting is abstinence from food, and is observed by man at certain times determined by law, to attain forgiveness of sins and much reward, obeying thus the one who fixed the law. Fasting (also) serves to weaken the force of concupiscence so that (the body) may obey the rational soul. Christians abstain from meat and all animal products: meat, milk, butter, and eggs. No food or drink is taken before noon; the seriously sick are exempted from fasting after they talked with their priest." Fasting gives purifies once life and liberates the soul and body from sin so that the free gift of salvation in Christ might produce great fruits in our life. It strengthens the human power of the love of God and man so that we might be more effective in serving. Fasting is not only from food. We don't fast to afflict ourselves with suffering and pain. Remember, the devil also never eats. The idea of fasting or being in a state of hunger and thirst without having a spiritual purpose is wholly vain [and is merely a diet]. "Fasting of the body is to cease from food and drink. Yet, the spiritual fasting means that man should be hungry and thirsty for righteousness," St John El-Tabayssi of Assiur. Like the saying of many saints including St. Yaried, they have taught us to fast through all our senses - eye shall fast from looking at vain things, mouth shall fast from speaking idle talk, the ear from hearing evil rumors, and the hand and feet from every evil action. As St. Isaac of Syria said, "the work of fast ..is the beginning of every effort against sin and lust .. almost all passionate drive decreases through fasting".
“Behold! The time for fasting has arrived
Awaken your hearts and be vigilant for your prayer;
Beloved brethren! Let us not relinquish fasting for fasting has a great benefit in it.
Fasting heals the wound of the soul and blocks all the lust of the flesh
And it cleanses the stain of sin
It brings forth peace; it endowed righteousness
It teaches meekness to the young”
[St. Yared Tsom Diggua]
Man's original state involved eating only fruits and vegetables. Adam only ate fruits and vegetables in the Garden of Eden. We fast from meat, dairy, fish, or seafood to go back to our original state, resembling Adam's original state. Christ fasted on the mount without food and water to undo Adam's sin, so that He could correct the sin of Adam, and this is why in Lent, for example, we fast without meat to return to the original Adam. The Church imitates Christ; what He has done, the Church does also. He who fasts wins Christ’s victory over the price of the world. There are many examples in the Bible demonstrating a way of life through consuming only fruits and vegetables. God told Adam to eat fruits and vegetables. "And God said, 'See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you, it shall be for food'" (Genesis 1:29). God commanded Adam to eat fruits and vegetables after his fall, "Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, And you shall eat the herb of the field" (Genesis 3:18).
Our benevolent and loving God who created all the trees in the Garden of Eden for the sake of man, His beloved, ordered Adam not to eat from a specific tree, the tree of knowledge and wisdom. Why would God order this first kind of fast to Adam? The reason for this fast was not simply for Adam to learn abstinence from food, drink or delicate things; rather, the main reason[s] for the first commandment of God- was (is):
Fasting from the tree was the only way that Adam could have shown his love for God. Our Lord and Savior Christ told the disciples, "If you love Me, keep My commandments" (John 14:15). God, out of His unconditional love, endowed every possible thing to Adam and Eve, it was their turn to show Him their love by being obedient to His commandments. Are we obedient to His commandments? When God ordered Adam not to eat, it wasn't to deprive man or to impose His authority but rather to make man worthy of His love through fasting and obeying His commandments; "Man doesn't live by bread only, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord" [Gen 2, Deut 8:3, Mat. 4:4). When we fast, it is an expression of our love to God who has given His only begotten Son to die for us. So the main reason for any of our fasts is to express our deep love for God. If the Lord Jesus Christ delivered Himself for my sake [Eph. 3.7], then, in turn, I wish to die all day for His sake [Romans. 3:8].
Obeying to fast from the tree also shows God's rightful mastery over Adam and Eve. Through fasting, we beseech God to subjugate our bodies by the power of the Holy Spirit so that we may live in spirit and not according to the flesh [Romans 8:11-12]. Eating from the tree represents taking mastery over one's life – mastery rightfully belongs to God. When we fast, we should know that first and foremost, we are acknowledging God's right over us. The purpose of fasting is to give one mastery or the ability to control and conquer the desires and passions of the flesh. Fasting liberates you from dependency from worldly things and makes you concentrate on things of the kingdom of God [Matthew. 6:33]. When you are attracted to every interesting/beautiful thing and pursue it passionately as Eve did, you are taking mastery of your life. You are saying you are not so sure that God has the best interest for you. Adam disobeyed, but Christ came and undid through His deeds and fasted forty days so that He may impart the power of His deeds, His life, and His example. When we obey and become true followers of Christ’s deeds, life, and laws, we will become true partners of all of Christ's works, career, and suffering.
Let us say before they ate the fruit, Adam and Eve didn't fully understand why it was forbidden. In that case, God's command allowed the first humans to trust Him. Like many of us who fall continuously into sin, Adam and Eve choose instead to suspect that He doesn't have their best interests at heart. This lack of trust in God [with the claim to be master of one's life apart from God] is the root of sin. Uprooting will require a perfect act of trust in God, a total abandonment of self to God: Jesus' death on the cross.
So as we have learned above, fasting is not all about what we should abstain from? Instead, it is first and foremost about love, obeying, and trusting in God. St. Basil the Great said, "We have been exiled from the first earthly paradise because we didn't fast. Now, we have to fast in order to get back to the heavenly paradise. Fasting enables us to recover what we had lost due to Adam's failure to fast and reconciles us with God."
How to fast
Blessed fasting should be in secret without ostentation or accusation of others. "Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face" [Matthew 6:16-17]. This is to say that the purpose of fasting shall not be to gain praise from others. The concept of fasting privately is to avoid boastfulness. We find the apostle, Cornelius, revealing that he fasted in private with many rewards from heaven saying: “Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing, and said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard, and your alms are remembered in the sight of God.” [Acts 10:30]. The Church also has standardized all fast so that we may labor at the same time in case someone may abstain from food and boast about it. If not regulated or indicated by the Church, believers may be deprived of fasting all their lives. Both in the Old and New Testament, as well as the Early Church Fathers, we see designated fasting days side by side with personal ones practiced as we see it today in our Church. "This is what the Lord Almighty says: "The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months will become joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals for Judah. Therefore love truth and peace" [Zechariah 8:19]. Fasting as a Church with all congregation demonstrates the unity of the spirit in worship and attachment to God and avoids hypocrisy. However, the level and depth of the fast concerning every individual remains in secret.
Biblical Evidence for Fasting
It was through fasting and beseeching God that righteous people received what they needed and wished. (Ezra. 8:21; Ne. 9:1-3; Est. 4:16-17; Acts 10:30; 13:2-3).
Old Testament, fasting had a prominent place in the lives of the Jewish people. Whenever the Old Testament prophets sought to communicate with God, they neither ate food nor drank water. (Ex. 34:28). The wrath of God that comes about as a result of sin can be averted through solemn prayer and rigorous fasting. (Jonah. 3:7-10; Joel 2:15).
In the New Testament also, fasting is not a law made by man. It is our Savior Jesus Christ himself, who made it the beginning of His messianic ministry in his earthly life. (Mt. 4:2; Lk. 4:2). Our Savior, Jesus Christ, has taught that fasting has the power of driving away evil spirits. (Mt. 17:21; Mk. 9:2). The Apostles, while they were praying and fasting, were commanded to serve the Church, received guidance from the Holy Spirit. (Acts 13:2). Priests and deacons who served as preachers of the gospel were inspired and ordained while fasting and praying. (Acts 13:3; 14:23).
So why fast from meat or dairy products?
We are not eating meat or dairy because we want to return to our original state, where humans lived in paradise. Man's original state involved eating only fruits and vegetables. We have seen in Bible story after story those who have fasted through returning to the original state of Adam and received forgiveness, spiritual strength and closer with God. King David said the following, "My knees are weak through fasting, And my flesh is feeble from lack of fatness[ Ps 109: 24]" to show how we should avoid fat [dairy food] during fasting. There are many examples in the Bible demonstrating a way of life eating only fruits and vegetables.
The Israelites ate manna in the wilderness. "Now the manna was like coriander seed and its color like the color of bdellium. The people went about and gathered it, ground it on millstones or beat it in the mortar, cooked it in pans, and made cakes of it; and its taste was like the taste of pastry prepared with oil" (Numbers 11:7-8).
Daniel and his three friends (Shedrach, Meshach, Abednego) only ate vegetables in the house of Nebuchadnezzar. "Please test your servants for ten days, and let them give us vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then let our appearance be examined before you, and the appearance of the young men who eat the portion of the king's delicacies; and as you see fit, so deal with your servants. So he consented with them in this matter and tested them for ten days. And at the end of ten days, their features appeared better and fatter in flesh than all the young men who ate the portion of the king's delicacies" (Daniel 1:12-15).
God spoke to Ezekiel, He told him what to eat: "Also take for yourself wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and spelled; put them into one vessel and make bread of them for yourself. During the number of days that you lie on your side, three hundred and ninety days, you shall eat it. And your food which you eat shall be by weight, twenty shekels a day; from time to time you shall eat it. You shall also drink water by measure, one-sixth of a hin; from time to time, you shall drink" (Ezekiel 4:9-11).
Therefore, Holy tradition since the beginning of times teaches us that all saints who have pleased God were also fasting from meats and dairy. However, nowadays, we are seeing many people who go through periods of fasting without getting any spiritual gift from it. We see them abstain from meat or dairy without associating it with a serious attempt to repent of their sins or renew their effort to conquer sin. We see them go into fasting and come out of it spiritually the same. We see them wait anxiously for the end of the fast to return to the food that they craved during the fast. St. John Chrysostom said, "Fasting will be useless if we went through it carelessly without contemplation." This is all to say fasting should have a purpose. So if somebody says that she/he fasts because the church leadership said so or perhaps because they would be embarrassed if they did not, then there is no reason or purpose for fasting. When one fast, aside from obeying His commandments and trusting Him; we aim to get closer to Him, and with His will and guidance, and then we will be better prepared to withstand the temptation of the world.
Fasting is a means; it is not an end.
One thing that must be clear, brothers and sisters, is that fasting is a means; it is not an end. It is a thing that we do to attain spiritual gifts, and as such, fasting by itself does not take us anywhere or make us righteous. It must be done with prayer, love, patience, and persistence. Prayer is the first pillar of Christian living. We need to understand fasting will strengthen us spiritually and make us closer to God. There are problems and struggles that we can't overcome without fasting. That is why we read in the Gospels, "However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting" (Matthew 17:21, Mark 9:29). This is why our Lord’s first life and work represent battling the devil through fasting. For when men enter into prayerful fasting, satan departs from the flesh. "Every struggle against sin and desire should be started by fasting, particularly if the struggle is against an inner sin," St. Mar Isaac. Fasting weakens the body and elevates the soul. It is a battle against the flesh. A weakened body is less susceptible to sin and more susceptible to an awakened soul. "My knees are weak through fasting, And my flesh is feeble from lack of fatness" (Psalm 109:24). Fasting removes the "lust of the flesh," "the lust of the eyes," and "the pride of life" (1 John 2:16). Fasting in order to become a perfect sacrifice with efficacious prayer must be consummated in Communion. What Jesus said, and the lives of the saints provide us with a strong testimony, is that when man fasts to get closer to God, and humbles himself before God, repent of his/her sins, asks Him to have mercy on him, or to grant him a favor, God listens, and in most cases, s/he gets what s/he asked for [Matthew 17:21]. Above all, fasting is not just abstaining from meat; it is a way of showing God our love, obedience, and trust in Him. Secondly, it is a means of fighting and overcoming evil spirits, lust, and creating a strong relationship with God.
Excerpt taken from "Tewahdo Orthodox Spiritual Journey From Fast of Nineveh to Good Friday" Deacon Medhanie Haile