You can’t escape the topic of fasting during Great Lent. In fact, the topic can be quite stressful for many people in the Church. The conflict is understandable since everyone fasts in a different way during Great Lent, and some choose not to fast at all. From the outside looking in, it can seem as if the Church teachings are being either ignored all together, or at the very least altered to our individual desires. There must be some reason the Church emphasises fasting so much during Great Lent.
We are half-way through Great Lent and today the Church boldly puts the Holy Cross in front of us to remind us of our destination. We are headed for the Cross, not only the Cross of Christ, but our Cross as Christians. In the Gospel today we hear, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” (Mark 8.34) In this simple invitation from Christ, we not only have our destination but the reason for fasting.
Let’s face it. Nobody would desire to suffer a life of the Cross. Nonetheless, Christ makes clear the only way to follow Him to heaven is to take up our cross. That is where fasting is important. Until we are able to deny ourselves, or as we might say in today’s language to get over ourselves, we will never willingly take up our cross. The cross is only a blessing when it is accepted willingly and in love, but as fallen human beings we love ourselves more than God. When we fast, we learn to deny ourselves. We learn there is something more important than what we desire in this world. We even learn to anticipate, welcome and endure the suffering the cross represents.
Only after we have learned to deny ourselves will we embrace the cross of Christ and be able to follow Him to heaven. Think about this for a moment. In today’s modern society, the cross of our Orthodox faith isn’t a wooden instrument of physical torture, but instead a social system that looks down on our way of life, our moral standards and even our devotion to God. Who in today’s modern world would willingly become an outcast, maybe even risking business opportunities, simply because we were living an Orthodox Christian life? If we want to follow Christ, then we will fast, not to follow the rules, but to teach our soul to accept our cross.
One final word about fasting. Fasting should not be done without guidance from our spiritual father who knows our hearts and desires. We should allow him to establish for us how we should fast. Even in this way we learn to deny ourselves. If we choose for ourselves how to fast, then we haven’t begun yet to deny ourselves, defeating the purpose in the first place.
Do you want to follow Christ to heaven? Then you must deny yourself, take up your cross...and fast!