Fasting: Exposing the Great Lie

29 03 2010

There’s still time!  If you have failed in your attempts at fasting during this Lent, or if you have not even attempted to fast, there’s still time.  We are now entering Holy Week.  The Easter Vigil approaches where we are invited to participate in the Fast of fasts in preparation for the Feast of feasts.  I pray that you, and I, will accept the invitation to fast during this Holy Week.  By doing so, we enter into the Victory of victories, achieved by the Second Adam.   It’s true!  Fasting is about victory, joy, strength, and life!

In support of this claim I offer the following quote from Alexander Schmemann (Great Lent, chapter 5, “Lent in Our Life”).  It is a long quote, but worth the effort!

Today people [Christian and non-Christian] fast for all kinds of reasons. . . .  It is important, therefore, to discern the uniquely Christian content of fasting.  It is first of all revealed to us in the interdependence between two events which we find in the Bible:  one at the beginning of the Old Testament and the other at the beginning of the New Testament.  The first event is the “breaking of the fast” by Adam in Paradise.  He ate of the forbidden fruit.  This is how man’s original sin is revealed to us.  Christ, the New Adam—and this is the second event—begins by fasting.  Adam was tempted and he succumbed to temptation.  The results of Adam’s failure are expulsion from Paradise and death.  The fruits of Christ’s victory are the destruction of death and our return to Paradise. . . .  [I]n this perspective fasting is revealed to us as something decisive and ultimate in its importance.  It is not a mere “obligation,” a custom; it is connected with the very mystery of life and death, of salvation and damnation.

…sin is not only the transgression of a rule leading to punishment; it is always a mutilation of life given to us by God.  It is for this reason that the story of the original sin is presented to us as an act of eating.  For food is means of life; it is that which keeps us alive.  But here lies the whole question: what does it mean to be alive and what does “life” mean?  For us today this term has a primarily biological meaning:  life is precisely that which entirely depends on food, and more generally, on the physical world.  But for the Holy Scripture and for Christian Tradition, this life “by bread alone” is identified with death because it is mortal life, because death is a principle always at work in it.  God, we are told, “created no death.”  He is the Giver of Life.  How then did life become mortal?  Why is death and death alone the only absolute condition of that which exists?  The Church answers:  because man rejected life as it was offered and given to him by God and preferred a life depending not on God alone, but on “bread alone.”  Not only did he disobey God for which he was punished; he changed the very relationship between himself and the world.  To be sure, the world was given to him by God as “food”—as means of life; yet life was meant to be communion with God; it had not only its end but its full content in Him.  “In Him was Life and the Life was the light of man.”  The world and food were thus created as means of communion with God, and only if accepted for God’s sake were to give life.  In itself food has no life and cannot give life.   Only God has Life and is Life.  In food itself God—and not calories—was the principle of life.  Thus to eat, to be alive, to know God and be in communion with Him were one and the same thing.  The unfathomable tragedy of Adam is that he ate for its own sake.  More than that, he ate “apart” from God in order to be independent of Him.  And if he did it, it is because he believed that food had life in itself and that he, by partaking of that food, could be like God, i.e., have life in himself.  To put it very simply:  he believed in food, whereas the only object of belief, of faith, of dependence is God and God alone.  World, food, became his gods, the sources and principles of his life.  He became their slave.  Adam—in Hebrew—means “man.”  It is my name, our common name.  Man is still Adam, still the slave of “food.”  He may claim that he believes in God, but God is not his life, his food, the all-embracing content of his existence.  He may claim that he receives his life from God but he doesn’t live in God and for God.  His science, his experience, his self-consciousness are all built on that same principle:  “by bread alone.”  We eat in order to be alive but we are not alive in God.  This is the sin of all sins.  This is the verdict of death pronounced on our life.

Christ is the New Adam.  He comes to repair the damage inflicted on life by Adam, to restore man to true life, and thus He also begins with fasting.  “When He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He became hungry” (Matt. 4:2).  Hunger is that state in which we realize our dependence on something else—when we urgently and essentially need food—showing thus that we have no life in ourselves.  It is that limit beyond which I either die from starvation or, having satisfied by body, have again the impression of being alive.  It is, in other words, the time when we face the ultimate question:  on what does my life depend?  And since the question is not an academic one but is felt with my entire body, it is also the time of temptation.  Satan came to Adam in Paradise; he came to Christ is the desert.  He came to two hungry men and said:  eat, for your hunger is the proof that you depend entirely on food, that you life is in food.  And Adam believed and ate; but Christ rejected that temptation and said:  man shall not live by bread alone but by God.  He refused to accept that cosmic lie which Satan imposed on the world, making that lie a self-evident truth not even debated any more, the foundation of our entire world view, of science, medicine, and perhaps even religion.  By doing this, Christ restored that relationship between food, life, and God which Adam broke, and which we still break every day.

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 fating 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.

Ary Scheffer's The Temptation of Christ

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 the 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.

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