By Stylianos Gerasimos
As we know, the Church has designated certain times of the ecclesiastical year for fasting. Entering the month of November we begin the Christmas fast, which starts on November 15th and ends on December 24th. During this fast fish is allowed until December 17th, except on Wednesdays and Fridays.
The Greek word for fasting, "νηστεία", is complex. It consists of the particle "νη", which indicates deprivation, and the verb "εσθίω", which means "eating". So the Greek word for fasting means total abstinence from all food. Today, however, fasting means abstaining from certain foods. This led to the creation of two words: νηστήσιμος (pro-fasting) and αρτύσιμος (non-fasting). That is, there are foods we can eat during a fast which are called νηστήσιμες, and there are foods we can't eat which are called αρτύσιμες.
From a spiritual standpoint fasting is for the body and the soul, since according to Saint John of Sinai fasting is "violence against human nature". Fasting in the Christian Church is a continuation of the fast legislated in the Old Testament. Certainly, then it was an end in itself. We all know the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. In the Orthodox Church fasting is not self-regulated. It is part of the spiritual life. It is one of the means by which a Christian approaches the "life in Christ". The importance of fasting is analyzed by the hymnographer in the Idiomelon of the Praises for Cheesefare Sunday: "The arena of virtues is now open! Let all who wish to begin training now enter! Prepare yourselves for the struggle of the Fast; those who strive valiantly shall receive the crown! Let us put on the armor of the Cross to combat the Enemy, taking faith as our unshakable rampart. Let us put on prayer as our breastplate, and charity as our helmet. As our sword, let us use fasting, for it cuts out all evil from our hearts. Those who do this shall truly receive the crown from the hands of Christ, the almighty One, on the day of judgment." Therefore fasting is a conscious act and choice of a believer that helps in our purification with the purpose and aim of approaching God. It is a personal sacrifice for one's spiritual ascent and transcending one's self. It helps in living the virtues: obedience, love and humility.
By Who and When Was the Fast Established
The Church Fathers say that the origins of fasting go back to the creation of man: "It is as old as humanity itself; it was prescribed in Paradise" (Basil the Great, "On Fasting"). When God placed man in Paradise after his creation, He told him what he must do throughout the course of his life. He told him to work and not eat "of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (Gen. 2:16-17). The first commandment of fasting was given by God to man at that moment. So fasting is divine law, which aims at manifesting the divine will to man. The value, as well as the command, of fasting is commented on by the hymnographer in the Idiomelon of the Praises for the First Friday of Great Lent: "Let us receive the proclamation of the fast with joy! For if our forefather Adam had kept the fast, we would not have been deprived of Paradise. Beautiful to see and good to eat was the fruit that killed us."
It should be noted that in the Old Testament there are regulated established fasts as well as private fasts. One regulated fast is referred to in Leviticus 16:20-30. God instructs Moses to not eat anything all day in Exodus, which is a personal fast. Moses fasted this way for forty days on Mount Sinai, when God called him to receive the Law.
The hymnography of the Church refers to the fasting of persons in the Old Testament. In the Doxastikon of the Praises for the First Sunday of Great Lent, the hymnographer stresses: "Moses, in the season of abstinence, received the Law and proclaimed it to the people. Elijah by fasting closed the heavens, and the three children of Abraham through fasting overcame the lawless tyrant."
In the New Testament, Luke the Evangelist writes of Anna: "And she was a widow of about eighty-four years, who departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day" (Lk. 2:37). The greatest example of fasting is by Saint John the Forerunner, of whom there was "none greater among those born of a woman". Fasting was a basic condition of his life.
But fasting was established by Christ Himself. This is shown by the fact that after His baptism He went into the desert and fasted "for forty days ... and then He was hungry" (Matt. 4). This fasting by Christ emphasizes the relationship between repentance and fasting. Basil the Great highlights this when he writes: "Repentance without fasting is fruitless" ("On Fasting").
Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Η ΝΗΣΤΕΙΑ ΩΣ ΕΚΚΛΗΣΙΑΣΤΙΚΟΣ ΘΕΣΜΟΣ", February 2005. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.