At this point, the next question arises: if Eucharist is incompatible with fasting, why then is its celebration still prescribed on Saturdays and Sundays of Lent, and this without “breaking” the fast? The canons of the Church seem here to contradict one another. While some of them forbid fasting on Sundays, some others forbid the breaking of the fast on any of the forty days. This contradiction, however, is only apparent, because the two rules which seem to be mutually exclusive refer in fact to two different meanings of the term fasting. To understand this is important because we discover here the Orthodox “philosophy of fasting” essential for our whole spiritual effort.
There are indeed two ways or modes of fasting rooted both in Scripture and Tradition, and which correspond to two distinct needs or states of man. The first one can be termed total fast for it consists of total abstinence from food and drink. One can define the second one as ascetical fast for it consists mainly in abstinence from certain foods and in substantial reduction of the dietary regimen.
The total fast, by its very nature, is of short duration and is usually limited to one day or even a part of one day. From the very beginning of Christianity, it has been understood as a state of preparation and expectation—the state of spiritual concentration on that which is about to come. Physical hunger corresponds here to the spiritual, expectation of fulfillment, the “opening up” of the entire human being to the approaching joy.
Therefore, in the liturgical tradition of the Church, we find this total fast as the last and ultimate preparation for a great feast, for a decisive spiritual event. We find it, for example, on the eves of Christmas and Epiphany, and above everything else it is the Eucharistic Fast, the essential mode of our preparation for the messianic banquet at Christ’s table in His Kingdom. Eucharist is always preceded by this total fast which may vary in its duration but which for the Church constitutes a necessary condition for Holy Communion.
Many people misunderstand this rule, seeing here nothing but an archaic prescription and wondering why an empty stomach should serve as a prerequisite for receiving the Sacrament. Reduced to such a physical and grossly “physiological” understanding, viewed as mere discipline, this rule, of course, loses its meaning. Thus it is no wonder that Roman Catholicism which long ago replaced the spiritual understanding of fasting with a juridical and disciplinary one (cf. for example, the power to “dispense” from fasting as if it is God and not man who needed fasting!) has nowadays virtually abolished the “Eucharistic” fast.
In its true meaning, however, the total fast is the main expression of that rhythm of preparation and fulfillment by which the Church lives, for she is both the expectation of Christ in “this world,” and the coming of this world into the “world to come.” We may add here that in the early Church this total fast had a name taken from the military vocabulary; it was called statio, which meant a garrison in the state of alarm and mobilization.
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.
~Adapted from Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent