The Fast Before the Feast
The Lenten fast is often neglected or misunderstood.
But this season offers the time and place to make us freer and stronger.
There’s a reason why fasting sounds exhausting. There’s a reason why people feel uncomfortable just envisioning a forty-day stretch of abstaining from certain foods or activities. The Lenten season is, after all, a long and tiring period for its participants.
It’s hard. That becomes clear in the last days of Lent—the days of final effort—when your body is craving your usual meats and foods and when your mind is ready for that activity you have gone so long without. By the time you hit those last couple weeks, you are physically tired.
Lenten fasting is training: an exercise of discipline, endurance, and patience that is beautiful because of the freedom, strength, and virtue it reaps. It is an opportunity to free us from the bondage of the flesh—a refusal to accept our fallen natures as normal. But this effort is difficult and tiresome. We discover that the desires of our flesh so easily control us.
Our bodies, after all, are accustomed to getting what they want. But even in our increasingly secular age, the ancient practice of fasting is still relevant. At least a quarter of Americans made the decision to fast during Lent last year, a LifeWay Research study found—sixty-one percent of Catholics, along with twenty-eight percent of Protestants (a percentage that increased by twelve percent since 2014). Dietary regulations, whether church-imposed or self-imposed, are enforced for six weeks. Meats and fats are most commonly avoided, and through this long and patient practice of abstinence, man finds that he does not live by bread alone.
Most everywhere, however, society gives people reasons not to fast. We should have it all—and get it when we want it. Restricting the appetites is deemed unnecessary, even viewed as a barricade in our effort to assert our autonomous wills. Fulfilling our most primal desires becomes our mantra. Society tries to convince us that we do depend on bread alone.
This is the ideology of instant gratification. It focuses on impulses and our desire in order to quench our natural thirsts. It accepts this dependency as law. But by embarking on a diligent and purposeful period of fasting, and rejecting the things that so often sound delicious or appealing, one slowly learns how to combat an oppressive ideology of our times. To practice moderation and asceticism, and to experience the struggle of doing so, means that we are denying ourselves and refusing to participate in a culture that celebrates indulgence without limits.
Some people view Lent as a season of suffering. They think they need to suffer in order to achieve this independence from their passions. They think that they need to ‘give up’ or ‘sacrifice’ things. In this view, fasting becomes a sort of dark sadness. But this is not what Christ intended. Instead, He said, “Whenever you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance.”
Therefore, we should practice Lent with a ‘bright sadness.’ We should meditate on the life of Christ and see the fast as a time of holy recovery. We should find the beauty, both in the struggle and renewal, of practicing virtue. While fasting from certain foods, we also fast from our love of material things, pleasures of the body, comparison and envy, arrogance and pride. We reclaim our humanity.
We are all controlled by the desires of the flesh through one way or another. They crush us, but Lent renews us. Our passions should not be our master, but we should be the masters of our passions—and by giving serious attention to this struggle, we can then seek to moderate them. The exercise and struggle for Christlikeness is never-ending.
The first commandment Adam received in the Garden of Eden was the divine law of fasting and self-control: he shall not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Even Adam, who had not yet been exposed to the consequences of sin, was instructed to practice restraint.
Then Christ—the Second Adam—spent forty days in the wilderness, fasting and praying before he started his public ministry. For hundreds of centuries thereafter, Christians have sought to imitate Christ’s fast during the Lenten season. Today, Catholics have Lenten fish fries. Eastern Orthodox avoid meat and dairy. Others give up sweets or their favorite television shows. It is through this season of abstinence from the desires of the flesh, that one sees the extent to which he or she is alive to the surrounding culture.
In this season of endurance, there is an opportunity for grace. Fasting, like all other paths of virtue, is exercised in a world where it is increasingly difficult to imitate the Divine. The Lenten lifestyle—one of patience, restraint, and perseverance—is an opportunity for us to learn to use the power over our bodies well.
Despite this season of fasting, food, drink, and pleasure are gifts. We should, in fact, celebrate them. But the ancient practice of fasting teaches that through discipline comes freedom. It grows into something better, and provides the opportunity to live more freely and abundantly. Lent culminates with the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. The fast ends with a feast. It is a celebration of Christ destroying death through his death—and restoring life.
Aphrodite Kishi is a writer and tech editor in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. She is a graduate of Patrick Henry College where she studied journalism and the classical liberal arts. Aphrodite is a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Header photo: Wreath by Annie Spratt on Unsplash