Fasting: It’s the Latest Fashion

This was originally a talk delivered at Eastern University, which somehow got transcribed here. When I saw this I wished that whoever had been my amanuensis had asked me for some feedback, as the original talk covered a number of items, and included the great line from St. John Climacus, that repentance is “self-condemning reflection, and carefree self-care . . . . the daughter of hope and the renunciation of despair. A penitent is an undisgraced convict.” But, as I have a blog, I guess I can try to right all wrongs there. And so, without further comment:

I was reared in Baltimore, the Baltimore of the late 60s and 70s, and so I always love it when I see the Ravens or Orioles on TV and hear the national anthem, and hear the Baltimorons give the “O” cheer at the appropriate part of the Star Spangled Banner, which is itself also from Baltimore. I was present at the creation of that Baltimore affectation to scream “O” at “Oh say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,” which started in upper deck section 34 of old Memorial Stadium. Those were great days for the Orioles. A few Sundays ago, Fr. Andrew was preaching on Zacchaeus, and noted that, as the children’s song put it, he “was a wee, little man.” That Sunday a Pentecostal minster was visiting the parish, and he informed me that the Zacchaeus song was still sung in the children’s school of his church. That prompt set off all sorts of other hymnal memories, including one I couldn’t get it out of my head, “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” The last verse says: “When from Mt. Pisgah’s lofty height / I view my home and take my flight / these robes of flesh I’ll drop and rise / to take the everlasting prize.” I don’t know what the author of that hymn meant by that line: I can only imagine it is some weakly expressed notion of the resurrection that barely transcends the Gnostic, but I should not judge. The Church Fathers themselves were not quiet on this point about our bodies, for they fulfill a liturgical function, that is, that they are themselves a form of vestment. Now, we tend not to notice how much the Bible talks about vestments and robes and clothes, but this was not lost to the Fathers. The idea of “robes of flesh,” or what the Fathers, citing Moses in Genesis, called “the garments of skin” (Genesis 3:20) was part of this dialogue. Indeed, many of the Fathers addressed this text owing to the Gnostic idea, embraced and endorsed by Origen, that the garments of skin were our physical bodies. In reply the Fathers were explicit that this was not the case at all, but rather that they were replacements for the garments of shame that Adam first donned when he realized his state of being naked as mortal. This is critical for understanding human nature because what we are now, in these robes, is not natural. In fact, we are unnatural in the sense that we are not suited for real life, but only this mortal life. Prior to the Fall, we were oriented to God, and we had a body suitable for immortality. But in Adam’s fall, by looking away from what God, and our theoria no longer being ordered him, and viewing the world in complete abeyance of God as creator, we made ourselves unable to bear our bodies suited for immortality. Thus “the garments of skin” that Adam receives are actually a suiting of mortality. They were God’s provision for us, so that we could now survive in this world.

This brings us to the centrality of fasting, for fasting existed even prior to the Fall. What does God say? “Every tree of the garden you may eat, but the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.” Thus fasting is one of the first commands, not because the tree of the knowledge of good and evil wasn’t good, but because it wasn’t meant for Adam at the moment of his creation. In other words, he had to realize that he could not live by what he wanted to do, but instead by God’s instruction. In this regard, when we fast during Lent, we are trying, as it were, to get back to Paradise, and back to the life that is ordered toward God. In short, we fast not as a form of self-flagellation, but as a means to reacquire through grace that which was lost by our first parents.

What exactly was Adam vested with in Paradise? The Church Fathers talk about Adam being naked, but they also talk about him being robed with glory – – glory which now is gone because we have put on corruptibility and mortality. The loss of glory brings shame: Adam reacts by getting fig leaves! But God instead gives him a body suited for the world of his mortality, and in this regard God has made us animalistic. We live as animals in that we now partake of the animalistic cycle of life, and are cut off from the immortal. The only way to obtain immortality is to again attain the robes of glory. And this, of course, is what we believe: we believe we obtain these robes of glory when we put on Christ.

So if we have put on Christ, why do still need to fast?

First, fasting teaches us that we do not live by bread alone, as we see from one of the beginning narratives of the Gospels: Christ, following his baptism, goes into the desert and confronts Satan. Unlike Adam, who is confronted in the glory of the Garden, Christ goes into the desert and there he fasts. What does it mean to live “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4)? Essentially, it means that I should not order my life around my stomach or around my passions, but instead by those words (or Word) that arranged and constituted the cosmos.

Second, Christians to learn how to think about life. We don’t fast for fasting’s sake, because fasting is not an end in itself. Ultimately, I don’t even fast to discipline my body, even though it is a very good discipline. Instead, fasting is a reorientation of how I live my life. Fasting, really, is not about food: as St. John Chrysostom warns us, “You abstain from food only to eat each other.”

St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 that we “groan . . . not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” In this image, Paul is talking to us about how we, as Christians, are in this mortal body. Too often we think that our bodies are evil, but this is not what the practice of fasting teaches. Instead, fasting means reorienting how I think so that my body can be ready for immortality. We realize in fasting that this world is incomplete because it is insufficient for union with God. When we fast, then, we are putting on clothes for immortality by placing this mortal life in its proper context, and that real life is the Life in Christ.

Putting on Christ is not a metaphor for being happy and avoiding the Christian struggle; nor is it merely some sort of legal transaction that gets my sins forgiven. Instead it is the positive life that I was supposed to obtain in the garden, my true purpose: putting on Christ means that I gain immortality; it is given to me because it is why I was created. In that I am created for this end of immortality, I can no longer desire my own ends. I must figure out God’s purpose, His order, His Words, and see the world as God asks me to see it, and I do this by repentance. Repentance is far more than just being sorry for my sins. In repentance, I come to a new relationship with God. I am completely changing the internal eye of my soul so that I no longer look at the world as an end in itself. I no longer see food merely as that which sustains me to my next meal. I no longer look at my wife as someone who helps raise the kid, or who, to use Kant’s detestable phrase, exists for the mutual possession of the other’s sexual organs, but instead whom I must help to become a saint. I see others as people who need me to get to Heaven, and whom I need to get there too.

Ultimately what repentance means, what fasting means, is nostalgia for heaven. The first time I heard that the paradox immediately struck me: how can we be nostalgic for someplace we’ve never been? And of course the answer is that we have been there, for the memory of the Garden never really leaves us. I get nostalgic for Baltimore, because it was home. And although Baltimore will never be my home again, there’s something else for which I’d rather be nostalgic, something else I long for. When we think about all the ideas that float around the world, what people aspire to, some of the brutally murderous ideas that have floated around the world – – people’s ideas of utopia at the end of a gun – – what is repentance telling us we need to long for? What is fasting telling us? It’s telling us “I can never hope—or more aptly I should never expect—justice and fairness, and probably not even happiness, real happiness in this world.” Now, I’m not telling you to go around being glum. We cannot be! Christ commands us: “When you fast, do not look dismal like the hypocrites, . . . but anoint your head and wash your face” (Matthew 6:16-17). Why? Because you’re not doing this to torture yourself. You’re doing this in order to orient yourself towards eternity, to orient yourself towards God. This is what the life of repentance is, this is what fasting is about – – that we don’t live by bread alone, but by the Word of the Father.

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About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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3 Responses to Fasting: It’s the Latest Fashion

  1. Pingback: Orthodox Collective

  2. Symeon says:

    ‘Further clothed rather than unclothed’. That is an excellent nugget for lenten reflection. Thank you!

  3. Deo Gratias Magister Meus! Again light from the East. This is one of the best “meditations” on fasting I have encountered. Fasting and abstinence is almost gone from our culture. Recently I posted an article, to the incredulity of many wherein I displayed current canon law for the Roman west. Roman Catholics are still called to abstain from meat on EVERY Friday of the calendar. Lent only increases the abstinence and fasting. The East is more faithful in keeping this Tradition

    Even the most faithful of Roman priests stumble over an explanation of why vestments in Advent are the same as Lent. Some have even admitted that Advent is meant for fasting as displayed by the garments, but stumble hard when asked why we no longer fast during Advent? Shame on us. The East is more faithful in keeping this Tradition

    One only need look at the Monks of Mt Athos and faithful Roman monks. My friends the Carmelites of Philadelphia have remained with tradition of initiating a fast from the Exaltation of the Holy Cross till Pascha. The Carthusians, who also perpetually abstain from meat, and a few others still practice and understand fasting. Those who hold to prayer and fasting live long healthy lives upon the earth, without hearth diseases or lessening their mental faculties in most cases.

    I am afraid the Gnostic connection made above for us is all to real. I might also add Iconoclasm is at play too. How so? A good reading of St. John Of Damascus’ “On Divine Images” is needful for all in the West. We have come to believe that the physical is bad, as did the Iconoclasts. St. John of Damascus saw the denial of Divine Images as a denial of the Incarnation itself. I fear many do now believe that they must shed this evil body to gain paradise. When the Son of God Himself took on and MAINTAINS “this glorious apparel” and indeed reigns in resurrected human flesh how can we dare say or even think….”these robes of flesh I’ll drop and rise / to take the everlasting prize.”

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