I have been questioned at work lately about the purpose of our Lenten fasting. Why do we fast? Why is it so important. Why do Roman Catholics give up things for Lent? And why are Eastern Catholics restricted to certain foods? There are, of course, a number of answers. We have fasted from ancient times. Fasting helps us to take our attention from the things of this world in order to transfer that attention onto God. Fasting reminds us that the things of this world are good, but that as Christians we seek a higher good, a life transfigured by the indwelling of the Trinity.
During Safro/Morning Prayer this morning I was reminded of a specific element of fasting and prayer; an element that enjoys a fairly widespread emphasis in Eastern spirituality. That element is spiritual healing. In the "Mazmooro" prayers before the readings this morning we pray:
Behold the merciful Doctor comes; you who are fasting, come, let him heal you; in his loving kindness he pardons sins.
Let it be proclaimed from the mountain tops: Behold, the merciful Doctor comes; you who are fasting, covered with wounds and sins, offer him praise.
So often we think of sin as breaking some law, a law that feels exterior to us. Indeed, many of the Eastern Fathers emphasize that it takes great spiritual effort on our part before we sense the laws of God flowing up from within our very nature. In the East there is this sense that sin is a breaking of God's law. But instead of focusing on the breaking of the law itself, the East has preferred to ask why it is that we break this law. The answer; sin is not just a breaking of the law, but a sickness within us that has been passed down to us since the fall of our first parents. In order to eradicate sin from our lives, it is first necessary to treat the underlying disease of which breaking the law is a symptom.
Whenever we go to the doctor for some procedure or surgery we are told that we must fast for a certain period of time. A doctor would not dream of removing the tonsils of someone who had just eaten a donut five minutes before coming to the hospital. Such an operation would simply make the person more ill. Christ, the Physician of our Souls, asks us to fast during this time so that He may operate in our hearts and remove the disease of sin and the tyranny of death. Fasting and prayer instill humility deep in our hearts; otherwise we might be tempted to think that the eradication of sin came from our own efforts and the sin of pride, the mother of all sins, would reign in our lives.
So we trust our Divine Physician, Who has spoken to us through the Scriptures and His Church. He asks us to fast not in order to make us miserable, but in order to fully heal us from deeper spiritual ailments. May our fast be a blessed one. And may heaven consume us.