By St. Basil the Great
1. “Sound the trumpet at the new moon,” says the Psalmist, “in the notable day of your feast.”2 This injunction is prophetic. The Scripture readings indicate to us more loudly than any trumpet and more distinctly than any musical instrument the Feast that precedes these days. For we have learned from Isaiah the Grace to be gained from the fasts. Isaiah rejected the Jewish way of fasting and showed us what true fasting means. “Fast not for quarrels and strifes, but loose every bond of iniquity.”3 And the Lord says: “Be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance, but anoint thine head, and wash thy face.”4 Let us, therefore, exhibit the demeanor that we have been taught, not being doleful about the coming days, but maintaining a joyful attitude, as befits holy people. No one who desponds is crowned; no one who sulks sets up a trophy of victory. Do not be sullen while you are being healed. It would be absurd not to rejoice over the health of your soul, but rather to be distressed over a change of diet and to give the impression of setting more store by the pleasure of your stomach than by the care of your soul. For satiety brings delight to the stomach, whereas fasting brings profit to the soul. Be of good cheer, for the physician has given you a medicine that destroys sin. For, just as the tapeworms that breed in the intestines of children are obliterated by certain very pungent drugs, so also fasting — a remedy truly worthy of its appellation —5, when introduced into the soul, kills off the sin that lurks deep within it.
2. “Anoint thine head, and wash thy face.”6 This sentence summons you to mysteries. One who has been anointed has received unction; he who has been washed has been cleansed. Apply this injunction to your inner members. Wash your soul clean of sins. Have your head anointed with holy oil, so that you might become a partaker of Christ, and approach the fast in this spirit. Do not disfigure your face as do the hypocrites.7 The face is disfigured when one’s inner disposition is obscured by a sham external appearance, concealed by falsehood as if beneath a veil. An actor in a theatre is one who assumes someone else’s persona — if he is a slave, he often plays a master, and if he is a private citizen, he plays a king. Likewise, in this life, as if on some stage, the majority of people turn their existence into a theatre, entertaining one thing in their hearts, but displaying something else to men by their outward appearance. Therefore, do not disfigure your face. Whatever you may be, appear as such. Do not transform yourself into a sullen person, seeking the glory that comes from appearing to be abstemious. For there is no profit in trumpeting your good deeds, nor any gain in advertising your fasting. Things that are done for outward show do not yield any fruit in the age to come, but terminate in human praise. Run with gladness to the gift of the fast. Fasting is an ancient gift, which does not grow old or become outmoded, but is ever renewed and flourishes with vigor.
3. Do you think that I am resting the origin of fasting on the Law? Why, fasting is even older than the Law. If you wait a little, you will discover the truth of what I have said. Do not suppose that fasting originated with the Day of Atonement, appointed for Israel on the tenth day of the seventh month.8 No, go back through history and inquire into the ancient origins of fasting. It is not a recent invention; it is an heirloom handed down by our fathers. Everything distinguished by antiquity is venerable. Have respect for the antiquity of fasting. It is as old as humanity itself; it was prescribed in Paradise. It was the first commandment that Adam received: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ye shall not eat.”9 Through the words “ye shall not eat” the law of fasting and abstinence is laid down. If Eve had fasted from the tree, we would not now be in need of this fast. “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.”10 We have been wounded through sin; we are healed through repentance, but repentance without fasting is fruitless. “Cursed is the ground.... Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth for thee.”11 You were ordered to live in sorrow, not in luxury. Make amends to God through fasting. Yet even life in Paradise is an image of fasting, not only insofar as man, sharing the life of the Angels, attained to likeness with them through being contented with little, but also insofar as those things which human ingenuity subsequently invented had not yet been devised by those living in Paradise, be it the drinking of wine, the slaughter of animals, or whatever else befuddles the human mind.
4. Since we did not fast, we fell from Paradise; let us, therefore, fast in order that we might return thither. Do you not see how Lazarus entered Paradise through fasting?12 Do not emulate the disobedience of Eve; never again accept the advice of the serpent, who suggested eating out of regard for the flesh. Do not use bodily sickness and infirmity as an excuse for not fasting. You are not offering such excuses to me, but to Him Who knows all about you. Tell me, you are unable to fast, and yet you are able eat to satiety throughout your life and oppress your body with the burden of what you eat? And yet, I know of doctors who prescribe for sick people not a variety of foods, but fasting and abstinence. How is it, then, that, while you are able to carry out doctors’ orders, you allege that you are unable to keep the fasts ordained by the Church? What is easier for the stomach? To pass the night after observing a frugal diet, or to lie in bed weighed down by an abundance of foods? Or rather, not lying down, but tossing and turning, heaving and groaning — unless you are going to say that it is easier for a helmsman to save a vessel weighed down with cargo than one that is less encumbered and lighter. The one that is laden with a multitude of goods will be submerged when any wave, no matter how low, rears up against it, whereas the one carrying a moderate quantity of freight easily rides the waves, there being nothing to prevent it from rising above the surge. Likewise, the bodies of men, when weighed down by constant surfeiting, easily become overwhelmed by illnesses, whereas, when they avail themselves of simple and easily-digested fare, they not only escape, as from the eruption of a tempest, the suffering that is to be expected from any disease, but also repel like the onslaught of a squall the sickness that is already present within them. In your view, I suppose, it is more laborious to rest than to run and to be still than to struggle — if, indeed, you assert that it is more appropriate for those who are ill to indulge in delicacies than to observe a frugal diet. For the force that governs living creatures naturally engenders moderation and frugality and adapts itself to that which is eaten; but when the body ingests sumptuous and varied foods, this force, being entirely unable to tolerate them, gives rise to a variety of diseases.
1 Translated from the Greek original in Patrologia Græca, Vol. XXXI, cols. 164A-184C.
2 Psalm 80:4, Septuaginta.
3 Isaiah 58:4, 6.
4 St. Matthew 6:16, 17.
5. “Νηστεία” literally means “not eating.” St. Basil is arguing, here, that fasting kills off sin by starving it of the aliment on which it feeds.
6 St. Matthew 6:17.
7 St. Matthew 6:16.
8 Leviticus 23:27.
9 Genesis 2:17.
10 St. Matthew 9:12.
11 Genesis 3:17-18.
12 St. Luke 16:19-31.
Read part two here.