What then is fasting for us Christians? It is our entrance and participation in that experience of Christ Himself by which He liberates us from the total dependence on food, matter, and the world. By no means is our liberation a full one. Living still in the fallen world, in the world of the Old Adam, being part of it, we still depend on food. But just as our death—through which we still must pass—has become by virtue of Christ’s Death a passage into life, the food we eat and the life it sustains can be life in God and for God. Part of our food has already become “food of immortality”—the Body and Blood of Christ Himself. But even the daily bread we receive from God can be in this life and in this world that which strengthens us, our communion with God, rather than that which separates us from God. Yet it is only fasting that can perform that transformation, giving us the existential proof that our dependence on food and matter is not total, not absolute, that united to prayer, grace, and adoration, it can itself be spiritual.
All this means that deeply understood, fasting is the only means by which man recovers his true spiritual nature. It is not a theoretical but truly a practical challenge to the great Liar who managed to convince us that we depend on bread alone and built all human knowledge, science, and existence on that lie. Fasting is a denunciation of that lie and also the proof that it is a lie. It is highly significant that it was while fasting that Christ met Satan and that He said later that Satan cannot be overcome “but by fasting and prayer.” Fasting is the real fight against the Devil because it is the challenge to that one all-embracing law which makes him the “Prince of this world.” Yet if one is hungry and then discovers that he can truly be independent of that hunger, not be destroyed by it but just on the contrary, can transform it into a source of spiritual power and victory, then nothing remains of that great lie in which we have been living since Adam.
How far we are by now from the usual understanding of fasting as a mere change of diet, as what is permitted and what is forbidden, from all that superficial hypocrisy! Ultimately, to fast means only one thing: to be hungry—to go to the limit of that human condition which depends entirely on food and, being hungry, to discover that this dependency is not the whole truth about man, that hunger itself is first of all a spiritual state and that it is in its last reality hunger for God.
In the early Church, fasting always meant total abstinence, a state of hunger, pushing the body to the extreme. It is here, however, that we discover also that fasting as a physical effort is totally meaningless without its spiritual counterpart: “. . . by fasting and prayer.” This means that without the corresponding spiritual effort, without feeding ourselves with Divine Reality, without discovering our total dependence on God and God alone, physical fasting would indeed be suicide. If Christ Himself was tempted while fasting, we have not a single chance of avoiding that temptation. Physical fasting, essential as it is, is not only meaningless, it is truly dangerous if it is disconnected from the spiritual effort—from prayer and concentration on God. Fasting is an art fully mastered by Saints; it would be presumptuous and dangerous for us if we attempted that art without discernment and caution. The entire lenten worship is a constant reminder of the difficulties, the obstacles, and the temptations that await those who think that they may depend on their will power and not on God.
It is for this reason that we need first of all a spiritual preparation for the effort of fasting. It consists in asking God for help and also in making our fast God-centered. We should fast for God’s sake. We must rediscover our body as the Temple of His Presence. We must recover a religious respect for the body, for food, for the very rhythm of life. All this must be done before the actual fast begins so that when we begin to fast, we would be supplied with spiritual weapons, with a vision, with a spirit of fight and victory.
~Adapted from Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent