The Great Fast

Monday (tomorrow) marks the beginning of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church (which liturgically begins at Forgiveness Vespers on Sunday). Though Great Lent is kept with rigor in Orthodox Tradition, there is nothing unusual asked of believers – nothing that we do not do on many days throughout the rest of the year. We fast; we pray; we give alms; we attend services, etc. But we do these with greater intensity and frequency during the Great Fast (the more universal name of the season). As preparation for the feast of Pascha, the “feast of feasts,” all of these disciplines drive the point of the Christian faith further and deeper.

Much of modern Christianity lives as a stranger to ascetical discipline. Few Christians fast, and the fasting of many others has forgotten the traditions of earlier generations. Various historical factors have turned the Christian life into a set of beliefs rather than a way of life. Monasticism seems exotic to many.

There is nothing exotic about asceticism. The New Testament assumes fasting and similar activities as normative for the Christian life. The Pharisees observed that the disciples of Jesus did not fast. When Christ was asked about this omission (something that seemed entirely unusual in the Judaism of the time), He responded:

Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast (Matt. 9:15).

The days in which “the bridegroom is taken away” are the days in which we live. Fasting is normative. Fasting is part of the practice of continual repentance – the proper attitude of the Christian heart. Repentance is not a single action taken in response to having done something wrong – repentance is a state of the heart – the state of brokenness and contrition:

A broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise (Psalm 51).

To a large extent – this is the goal of the Christian way of life – to cultivate a heart of repentance. King David is called “a man after God’s own heart,” not because he was without sin (he was an adulterer and a murderer). He was a man after God’s own heart because when confronted with his sin – his heart is broken. He makes no defense and offers no excuse.

St. Paul offers this admonition:

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him (Romans 12:1-3).

No other single passage, it seems to me, manages to gather as many aspects of the Lenten life (and thus daily life at all times). Our bodies become “a living sacrifice.” I can only wonder which sacrifice St. Paul had in mind (there were many different ones in the Old Testament). Or it may be that the sacrifice of Christ is now the dominant image for him. But our bodies, now “crucified” with Christ are offered up in what St. Paul calls our  “spiritual worship” logike latrein.

To offer our bodies as a sacrifice, through fasting and prayer, is itself lifted up to the level of worship, and interestingly our logike worship (“spiritual” is perhaps a more accurate translation than “reasonable” as some render it – though it would also be quite accurate to translate it as “natural” or “the worship that is proper to us as human beings”). It is a struggle to fast, to present our bodies as a “living” sacrifice. This is so much more than a “one time” offering: it stretches through the days and nights of this great season.

St. Paul then admonishes us not to be conformed to the world but to be transformed by the renewal of our mind (nous) which could easily be rendered “heart.” Fr. John Behr describes the passions, in his The Mystery of Christ, as “false perceptions,” our own misunderstanding of the body and its natural desires. Thus renewing our minds is an inner change in the perception of our selves and our desires, or in the words of St. Irenaeus (quoted frequently by Behr) “the true understanding of things as they are, that is, of God and of human beings.”

I find it of great importance, that St. Paul concludes this small admonition by pointing us towards humility (as he does as well in Philippians 2). It is in embracing the cross of Christ, in emptying ourselves towards God and towards others that our true self is to be found and that our minds are renewed. We cannot look within ourselves to find our true selves. “For he who seeks to save his life will lose it.” Rather the true self is found when we turn to the other and pour ourselves out towards them. We find ourselves by losing ourselves in the beloved. This is the love that makes all things possible for us.

The Fast, like all things in the gospel, is ultimately an act of love. It is an act of love for it is a training in the sacrifice of self. Having denied ourselves in such small things (such as abstaining from various foods and drink), we learn to deny ourselves in much larger things – such as pride and anger, self-love and envy. By God’s grace such efforts are molded into the image of Christ – who Himself began His ministry with a fast of 40 days – and this for love.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





18 responses to “The Great Fast”

  1. Shane Kapler Avatar

    Thank you Father – this speaks to my heart. Your explanation of fasting, the reason why it is important for us, is very clear.

  2. NW Juliana Avatar
    NW Juliana

    Father bless. Please forgive me, a sinner.

    And thank you for this post as we begin the fast. Our priest spoke today of a solar power collector panel that follows the sun as it “moves” across the sky throughout the day and how we ought to be like this during the fast — continually seeking the Son throughout the day and letting that “power” us instead of food (my paraphrase). Lord have mercy

  3. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by istologio2: The Great Fast: Monday (tomorrow) marks the beginning of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church (which liturgically beg…

  4. Phil Avatar

    Blessed Fast to you, Father.

  5. […] 15, 2010 at 11:41 (Orthodox Christianity, Religion, Society) Father Stephen does it again! Monday (tomorrow) marks the beginning of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church (which liturgically […]

  6. Lou. Avatar


    You write, “Few Christians fast, and the fasting of many others has forgotten the traditions of earlier generations.”

    Could you describe the tradition as to fasting?

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    The season of Lent, which is known and observed in many Western Churches, both Catholic and Protestant, has undergone a great deal of modernization among most Christians who observe it. The Eastern Church has generally left the canons and tradition of Lent intact. Outside of the English language, the season is called, “The Great Fast,” rather than Lent.

    Fasting, in Eastern (and in the older tradition in the West) practice means abstaining from certain foods, eating less, occasionally the manner in which food is prepared, and sometimes the number of meals eaten in a day. Fasting is always to be coupled with prayer and acts of mercy. (Fasting without prayer is sometimes called ‘the fast of demons’ because demons never eat, but they also never pray).

    In Orthodox practice we abstain from meat, fish, wine (alcohol), dairy and olive oil. There are minor exceptions to this and the fast is frequently adjusted according to physical restrictions, social restrictions, or spiritual maturity. If you can’t or don’t pray like a monk, it’s probably unwise to try and fast like a monk. Sickness, pregnancy, age, etc., can all require that the fast be moderated. Living in a non-Orthodox home, or in a school setting (for example) may also require some moderation in the fast.

    Saturdays and Sundays generally see some moderation in the fast (for instance wine and oil are permitted on those days) because Saturday (the Sabbath) and Sunday (the day of resurrection) are given recognition and honor with this lighter fasting regimen (though there are often more services held on those days).

    The modern practice of “giving something up for Lent” is a very recent distortion of the fast. It becomes a distortion because it makes of the discipline a matter of individual choice rather than a community-shared preparation for the great Feast of Pascha. Such individual choices frequently become trivializations of a very profound and ancient practice.

    There a many arguments put forward that fasting of the more ancient form is too difficult in the modern world – though I cannot understand the reasoning. We have too much food therefore we cannot refrain from certain foods? We’re too busy to pray? etc.

    There are even some within the Orthodox world who argue that the fast should be changed to fit modern needs. I suspect that this argument will not find traction within the Orthodox world. It seems foreign to Orthodox understanding to me.

    I have no particular arguments about the relative importance of any particular fasting rules. The Tradition exists and I would prefer to wrestle with that rather than try and change it. It’s me that needs to be changed – not the Tradition.

    My own concern (and why I write about the subject or offer cultural observations) is the disappearance of asceticism from a normative Christian world-view. Fasting is not abnormal, though I meet many Christians who think it is – or who know nothing about it.

    A thousand years ago there would have been no Christian in the world who did not fast or think of fasting as an integral part of his/her life. It’s growing disappearance is part of a vast sea-change that effected some of the most fundamental understandings of the faith.

    It would sound odd to many were I to say, “There is no Christianity without fasting.” But this would not have sounded odd a thousand years ago.

    I have seen an Orthodox observation that the first sin was a failure to keep the fast. “Do not eat” of a particular fruit was the fast (even in Paradise). We refused the fast and ruptured communion with God.

    The most fundamental act in the life of a Christian is eating (“eat my flesh, drink my blood”). Fasting is directly connected with this fundamental, sacramental act.

    Fasting is not a law. We can certainly be saved without it. We do not earn anything by fasting. But breathing is not a law. I do not recommend a Christian abstain from breathing. Fasting is simply a normative part of the Christian spiritual life – like prayer. It may even be the case that we can be saved without prayer – it’s just that I can’t imagine what that would look like.

    That’s a long answer to the question. I hope some of it is helpful.

  8. […] has been said by many. But as today marks the beginning of the Great Fast (Lent), Fr. Stephen has a post that talks about why we fast. When all is said and done, this post may leave one asking oneself […]

  9. Darlene Avatar

    Greetings Father, and bless! This year will be the first time I enter into the Great Fast. As a Protestant Evangelical, fasting was virtually absent, except within Pentecostalism. But there it was done on an individual basis, not as a community.

    Having made the decision to be chrismated and enter the Orthodox Church has not been without much inward struggle and contemplation. It has also been met just recently with opposition, namely from my husband.

    All along he supported me on this journey toward Orthodoxy. He understood my frustration with Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. But, he did not dig deep into the trenches with me in study and prayer. He did not do the leg work, (for lack of a better term), in being able to understand and verbalize the problems within Western Christianity. He only observed me doing this from afar. Yet, he resisted digging deeper with me for various reasons, which, I believe, finally boil down to just not being ready.

    So, when I casually mentioned that I invited two friends to come to my chrismation, it dawned on him that I was serious about this journey into Orthodoxy. “I didn’t know you were actually going to go through with it. I just thought you were thinking about it,” was his reply. From that, a drawn out, emotion-filled dialogue began, lasting several hours. Finally, he said he was afraid of losing me, and that he grieved at the thought of never taking The Lord’s Supper together again. However, I haven’t taken The Lord’s Supper in almost 3 yrs and told him almost 2 yrs ago that I would not ever be taking it in a Protestant church again.

    Anyway, how does this all tie into The Great Fast of Lent? As is often said, Orthodoxy is “a way of life.” Thst “way” consists of the rule of prayer and fasting. I want to quietly fast, so as not to cause friction between us. Iow, I want to practice and live the Orthodox life outside of Divine Liturgy, but do it in a way that is not a means for contention between my husband and me.

    He is a dear man who loves Jesus Christ as he understands him within the context of Protestant Evangelicalism. One could truly say of him that he embodies the idea of what an American born-again Christian truly is. He does not feel comfortable calling any man “Father.” He does not see a defense for the “Priesthood” under the New Covenant. The Intercession of the Saints is something he cast aside from his Anglican upbringing. Liturgy is not necessary in order to worship God in his paradigm. The Eucharist cannot forgive sins. Evangelization (translated “street witnessing”) is the hallmark of a healthy church. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

    Basically, he rejected all of what he would call “the formalism and ritual” of the Anglican Church. Any church that resembles that pardigm has no interest for him. All of it, in his experience, was empty religion that had a form but denied the power of God. They said the Creeds, partook of the Eucharist, went to Confession, prayed for the intercession of the Saints, believed in baptismal regeneration, but when outside of the religious confines of the church building, did not live the Christian faith.

    Somehow, he is unable at this point to separate his beliefs about his Anglican upbringing in order to be open to Orthodoxy. I have understood this all along and expressed that to him from time to time. Still, he supported me in my journey. He understood that I had no such issues to deal with, having been raised in an atheist/agnostic home.

    I just don’t think the realization of me becoming Orthodox actually hit him until a few days ago. He knew I was attending Catehumen classes, he knew I was serious about attending Divine Liturgy. He knew, and often heard me say that I was “no longer a Protestant.” I just don’t think it all registered until he realized that I fully intended to become Orthodox. I think he thought I would just continue to dabble and ponder, but not actually take the leap.

    Really, he fears that Orthodoxy will somehow do damage or harm our relationship with each other. How do I assure him that it won’t? Truly, I have learned more about love and humility within Orthodoxy than I ever did as a Protestant.

    Forgive me for opening up in such a way. Yet, I would not be surprised that many have found themselves in similar circumstances as myself. Pray for me (us) that I (we) can be good examples of living the Orthodox faith.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    I know of many who have had similar experiences in their conversion to the Orthodox faith. On the one hand, it is significant that conversion to the Orthodox faith should create tension – when changing churches (denominations) rarely registers on the radar of many. Becoming Orthodox is obviously a serious thing – which is only as it should be considering what the Christian faith is about.

    I think that you put your finger on things in speaking of it as a “way of life.” And the way of life is its own supporting argument. Patience, kindness, lack of judgment, and love above all else, is the life that will make a difference for your husband in the end of the matter. And those are the sorts of “arguments” that take time, and, well, living the life. Marriage exists by communion (on a variety of levels) and so I would be careful to observe the communion of marriage as fully as possible even if it does not presently include a common cup.

    The tragic truth is that the “non-practice” of the faith is as common among evangelicals as it is among Catholics or Anglicans, and Orthodoxy is far from being a stranger such emptiness. By God’s grace, be an example of a practiced faith and you’ll not have to argue the point. In many ways, the great commonality between much of Protestant Christianity and American culture can make it appear as though it is more practiced than it is. By the same token, the “foreign” quality of Orthodoxy can make even its modest observance seem devout in our context.

    Love God above all else (for this is the Orthodox faith).

    God keep you and your husband and give you rich blessings. You are, after all, bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh – which is to say that his flesh and bone is also an Orthodox catechumen and will soon be standing at the Cup. He is being sanctified in this relationship. May God multiply this blessing in both your lives.

    I will and do pray for you.

  11. Micah Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen, how very informative.

    I have come across some extraordinary feats of fasting among holy Christian men and women.

    I wish you a blessed Fast!

  12. Lewis Avatar


    I have also been on a long road to Orthodoxy but have made the decision not to go ahead of my wife for good reasons. We worship together in an Anglican Church. In fact, we have a mutual understanding of Christian Truth, but she prefers the Anglican way. With my wife’s blessing, I partake of many of the good things I love about the Orthodox Church including inquirers classes and occasional worship.

    You may have surprised your husband, but his sudden awareness should not have surprised you. We men often don’t get it until long after the fact. Please be patient with him. His arguments show that he is thinking about “his” faith; grant him time.

    I urge you not to let this separate you from your husband and recommend that you and he work toward agreements about what you will do in your virtual Orthodoxy. Practically, I suggest agreements about when you will attend worship, practice the disciplines, participate in community events, etc. I pray that he will accept your christmation, too.

    I trust that Father Stephen will respond. You can trust his counsel.

  13. frontierorthodoxy Avatar

    Great post, father. What I like even more is your emphasis on fasting as a communal activity and not just an individual activity (as noted in the comments section). I remember arguing the exact same point with a RC theologian once in past, pointing out that something was lost when that shift occurred. She did not agree.

  14. Yannis Avatar

    Good luck in your journey and relationship, Darlene. Thanks for sharing your story.



  15. […] The Great Fast (I’m likely to post some of this separately tomorrow…) […]

  16. Todd+ Avatar

    Thank you for this post, as well as your follow-up comments.

    I wanted to let you know that, in my Ash Wed. homily, I will be quoting you where you say, “. . . there is nothing unusual asked of believers – nothing that we do not do on many days throughout the rest of the year. We fast; we pray; we give alms; we attend services, etc. But we do these with greater intensity and frequency during the Great Fast . . .” – Very well said.

    Praying God’s rich blessings upon you, I am:

    Your Brother in Christ,

    Dr. Todd A. Stepp, O.S.L.
    Grace Church of the Nazarene
    Evansville, Indiana

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