This is a long quotation, but very profitable to read. It explains the purpose of fasting, the proper attitude towards it, its effects on our spiritual state, and how fasting not done in the right spirit is actually injurious to us.
We also see from St John’s words the reason we have a fast free week following the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee. He does not reference this custom, but his explanation is the reason it exists. The homily from which this quotation was taken has many other profitable things about fasting.
It is very fruitful to think about the true purpose of fasting during a fast-free week!
TO MY FLOCK:It would also be very fruitful to discuss this in church this weekend. Please read this carefully, so we can discuss it.
St John Chrysostom, Letters; Homilies on the Statutes, Homily III, (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf109.xix.v.htm)
Bold face and headings inserted.
Fasting is a help to us; we should approach fasts with expectation of spiritual improvement.
7. Let us not then despair of our safety, but let us pray; let us make invocation; let us supplicate; let us go on embassy to the King that is above with many tears! We have this fast too as an ally, and as an assistant in this good intercession.
Therefore, as when the winter is over and the summer is appearing, the sailor draws his vessel to the deep; and the soldier burnishes his arms, and makes ready his steed for the battle; and the husbandman sharpens his sickle; and the traveler boldly undertakes a long journey, and the wrestler strips and bares himself for the contest.
So too, when the fast makes its appearance, like a kind of spiritual summer, let us as soldiers burnish our weapons; and as husbandmen let us sharpen our sickle; and as sailors let us order our thoughts against the waves of extravagant desires; and as travelers let us set out on the journey towards heaven; and as wrestlers let us strip for the contest. For the believer is at once a husbandman, and a sailor, and a soldier, a wrestler, and a traveler.
Hence St. Paul saith, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers. Put on therefore the whole amour of God.” Eph. vi. 12.
Hast thou observed the wrestler? Hast thou observed the soldier? If thou art a wrestler, it is necessary for thee to engage in the conflict naked. If a soldier, it behooves thee to stand in the battle line armed at all points. How then are both these things possible, to be naked, and yet not naked; to be clothed, and yet not clothed! How? I will tell thee. Divest thyself of worldly business, and thou hast become a wrestler. Put on the spiritual amour, and thou hast become a soldier. Strip thyself of worldly cares, for the season is one of wrestling. Clothe thyself with the spiritual amour, for we have a heavy warfare to wage with demons. Therefore also it is needful we should be naked, so as to offer nothing that the devil may take hold of, while he is wrestling with us; and to be fully armed at all points, so as on no side to receive a deadly blow.
Cultivate thy soul.
Cut away the thorns.
Sow the word of godliness.
Propagate and nurse with much care the fair plants of divine wisdom, and thou hast become a husbandman.
And Paul will say to thee, “The husbandman that laboureth must be first partaker of the fruits.” 2 Tim. ii. 6. He too himself practiced this art. Therefore writing to the Corinthians, he said, “I have planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.” 1 Cor. iii. 6.
Spiritual and physical effects of Fasting.
Sharpen thy sickle, which thou hast blunted through gluttony—sharpen it by fasting. Lay hold of the pathway which leads towards heaven; rugged and narrow as it is, lay hold of it, and journey on.
And how mayest thou be able to do these things? By subduing thy body, and bringing it into subjection. For when the way grows narrow, the corpulence that comes of gluttony is a great hindrance.
Keep down the waves of inordinate desires.
Repel the tempest of evil thoughts.
Preserve the boat; display much skill, and thou hast become a pilot.
But we shall have the fast for a groundwork and instructor in all these things.
Real Fasting: from meat and sins.
8. I speak not, indeed, of such a fast as most persons keep, but of real fasting ; not merely an abstinence from meats; but from sins too. For the nature of a fast is such, that it does not suffice to deliver those who practice it, unless it be done according to a suitable law. “For the wrestler,” it is said, “is not crowned unless he strive lawfully.” 2 Tim. ii. 5.
Why do we fast after the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee?
To the end then, that when we have gone through the labor of fasting, we forfeit not the crown of fasting, we should understand how, and after what manner, it is necessary to conduct this business; since that Pharisee also fasted, Luke xviii. 12. but afterwards went down empty, and destitute of the fruit of fasting. The Publican fasted not; and yet he was accepted in preference to him who had fasted; in order that thou mayest learn that fasting is unprofitable, except all other duties follow with it.
The Ninevites fasted, and won the favor of God. Jonah iii. 10. The Jews, fasted too, and profited nothing, nay, they departed with blame. Isa. lviii. 3, 7; 1 Cor. ix. 26.
Since then the danger in fasting is so great to those who do not know how they ought to fast, we should learn the laws of this exercise, in order that we may not “run uncertainly,” nor “beat the air,” nor while we are fighting contend with a shadow.
Fasting is a medicine; but a medicine, though it be never so profitable, becomes frequently useless owing to the unskilfulness of him who employs it. For it is necessary to know, moreover, the time when it should be applied, and the requisite quantity of it; and the temperament of body that admits it; and the nature of the country, and the season of the year; and the corresponding diet; as well as various other particulars; any of which, if one overlooks, he will mar all the rest that have been named. Now if, when the body needs healing, such exactness is required on our part, much more ought we, when our care is about the soul, and we seek to heal the distempers of the mind, to look, and to search into every particular with the utmost accuracy.
Admonition – Dost thou fast? Give me proof of it by thy works!.
11. I have said these things, not that we may disparage fasting, but that we may honor fasting; for the honor of fasting consists not in abstinence from food, but in withdrawing from sinful practices; since he who limits his fasting only to an abstinence from meats, is one who especially disparages it.
Dost thou fast? Give me proof of it by thy works!
Is it said by what kind of works?
If thou seest a poor man, take pity on him!
If thou seest in enemy, be reconciled to him!
If thou seest a friend gaining honor, envy him not!
If thou seest a handsome woman, pass her by!
For let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye, and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies.
Let the hands fast, by being pure from rapine and avarice.
Let the feet fast, by ceasing from running to the unlawful spectacles.
Let the eyes fast, being taught never to fix themselves rudely upon handsome countenances, or to busy themselves with strange beauties.
Fasting for all the senses explained
For looking is the food of the eyes, but if this be such as is unlawful or forbidden, it mars the fast; and upsets the whole safety of the soul; but if it be lawful and safe, it adorns fasting. For it would be among things the most absurd to abstain from lawful food because of the fast, but with the eyes to touch even what is forbidden. Dost thou not eat flesh? Feed not upon lasciviousness by means of the eyes.
Let the ear fast also. The fasting of the ear consists in refusing to receive evil speakings and calumnies. “Thou shalt not receive a false report,” it says.
12. Let the mouth too fast from disgraceful speeches and railing. For what doth it profit if we abstain from birds and fishes; and yet bite and devour our brethren? The evil speaker eateth the flesh of his brother, and biteth the body of his neighbor.
Because of this Paul utters the fearful saying, “If ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.” Gal. v. 15. Thou hast not fixed thy teeth in the flesh, but thou hast fixed the slander in the soul, and inflicted the wound of evil suspicion; thou hast harmed, in a thousand ways, thyself and him, and many others, for in slandering a neighbor thou hast made him who listens to the slander worse…
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