March 8, 2011

St. Basil the Great's Homily On Fasting (2 of 3)

...Continued from part one here.

5. But let our discourse proceed to history in reviewing the antiquity of fasting, and how all of the Saints, receiving it as an ancestral legacy, preserved it in the way that fathers hand things on to their children; thus, this possession has come down to us by a process of successive transmission. There was no wine in Paradise, nor any slaughter of animals, nor any consumption of meat. After the flood, there was wine; after the flood came the ordinance: “Eat all things as the green herb.”13 When hope of human perfection was abandoned, then enjoyment was permitted. Noah, who knew nothing about the use of wine, is proof that men had no experience thereof. For wine had not yet found its way into human life, nor had men become accustomed to it. Therefore, when he had neither seen anyone else drinking wine nor tried it himself, he unguardedly succumbed to the harm that comes therefrom: “For Noah...planted a vineyard; and he drank of its fruit, and became drunk”;14 not because he was a drunkard, but because he did not know how much wine he could imbibe. Thus, the discovery of wine-drinking is more recent than Paradise, so ancient is the dignity of fasting. Moreover, we know that Moses ascended the mountain while fasting.15 For he would not have dared to touch the peak of the mountain while it was smoking, nor would he have made bold to enter the darkness, had he not been armed with fasting. It was through fasting that he received the commandment inscribed on the tablets by the finger of God. Above, fasting ushered in the Law; below, gluttony led to the madness of idolatry. “And the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.”16 The forty days in which the servant of God waited on God in fasting and prayer were rendered futile by a single drinking bout. For the tablets inscribed by the finger of God that Moses obtained were shattered by drunkenness, since the Prophet did not judge the drunken people worthy to receive the Law from God. In one moment of time that people, who had been taught about God through stupendous miracles, plunged headlong, through gluttony, into the idol-madness of the Egyptians. Now juxtapose both of these facts: how fasting brings one close to God, and how indulgence drives away salvation. Once you descend to indulgence, you are on the road to perdition.

6. What ruined Esau and made him a slave of his brother? Was it not a single act of eating, which caused him to sell his birthright?17 Was it not prayer combined with fasting that bestowed Samuel on his mother?18 What was it that rendered the mighty champion Samson invincible? Was it not fasting, with which he was conceived in his mother’s womb?19 Fasting gave birth to him; fasting suckled him; fasting made him grow to manhood, and an Angel enjoined this fast on his mother: “She shall not eat of anything that cometh from the vine, neither shall she drink wine or strong drink.”20 Fasting gives birth to prophets and strengthens the powerful; fasting makes lawgivers wise. Fasting is a good safeguard for the soul, a steadfast companion for the body, a weapon for the valiant, and a gymnasium for athletes. Fasting repels temptations, anoints unto piety; it is the comrade of watchfulness and the artificer of chastity. In war it fights bravely, in peace it teaches stillness. It sanctifies the Nazirite21 and perfects the Priest. For it is not possible to dare to perform sacred actions without fasting, not only in the mystical and true worship of the present era, but also in the symbolic worship offered according to the Law. Fasting made Elias a beholder of that great vision; for, having cleansed his soul by fasting for forty days, he was thus vouchsafed, in the cave in Horeb, to behold the Lord as far as it is possible for a man to do so.22 While fasting he restored to the widow her son, having been fortified against death itself through fasting.23 A voice that went forth from the mouth of one fasting shut the heavens for the transgressing people for three years and six months. For, in order to soften the untamed heart of his stiff-necked people, he chose to condemn himself to hardship together with them. Hence, he said: “As the Lord liveth, there shall not be water upon the earth, except by the word of my mouth.”24 He brought a fast upon the people through famine, so as to correct the evil caused by their dissolute life of luxury. What kind of life did Elissaios have? How did he enjoy hospitality from the Shunamite woman? How did he himself welcome the prophets? Did he not fulfill the duties of hospitality with wild greens and a little flour?25 At that time, after the gourd had been placed in the pottage, those who had tasted it would have been in peril, had not the poison been neutralized by the prayer of the faster.26 There is a physical substance called amianthus,27 which is noncombustible, and which, when placed in a flame, appears to glow like coal, but emerges purer when removed from the fire, as if it has been brightened and cleansed with water. Such were the bodies of those three Youths in Babylon, which, on account of their fasting,28 possessed the properties of amianthus. For in the fiery furnace, as if they were golden by nature, they thus proved to be invulnerable to the fire. In fact, they proved to be stronger than gold. For the fire did not smelt them, but preserved them intact. And yet, nothing could have withstood those flames, which were being fed with naphtha, pitch, and brushwood, to such an extent that they streamed forth forty-nine cubits into the air and, feeding on what surrounded them, consumed many of the Chaldæans.29 Entering that conflagration, therefore, armed with fasting, the Youths trampled it underfoot, breathing refined and dew-laden air in such a fierce fire. The fire did not dare to touch even their hair, because they had been nourished by fasting.30

7. Daniel, a man greatly beloved,31 who ate no bread and drank no water for three weeks,32 when he descended into the den, taught even lions to fast.33 The lions were not able to sink their teeth into him, as if he were made of stone, bronze, or some other harder material. Thus, fasting, as when iron is dipped in water, had toughened that man’s body and rendered it impregnable to lions; for they did not even open their mouths against the Saint. Fasting extinguished the power of fire and stopped the mouths of lions. Fasting sends up prayer to Heaven, becoming, as it were, a wing for it on its upward journey. Fasting is the enhancement of households, the mother of health, the guide of the young, the adornment of elders, the good companion of wayfarers, the steadfast comrade of married couples. A husband does not suspect a plot against his marriage when he sees his wife observing the fast. A wife does not pine with envy when she sees her husband embracing the fast. Who has ever diminished his resources during a fast? Count up today what is in your house, and after a fast count it again. You will not have run short of any household goods because of the fast. No animal laments death, nowhere is there any blood, no sentence is pronounced against animals by the inexorable stomach. The knives of cooks are checked; the table is content with foods that grow naturally. The Sabbath was given to the Jews, Scripture says, that your beast of burden and your servant might enjoy a rest.34 Let the fast be a rest from constant toils for the menials who serve you throughout the year. Give your cook a break, grant your footman a holiday; stay the hand of your cupbearer. Let your pastry cook have a vacation from time to time. Let your household at last have some respite from the never-ending commotion, smoke, the odor of fat, and people running hither and thither and ministering, as it were, to that implacable mistress, the stomach. In any case, even tax-collectors sometimes give small breaks to those who owe them money. Let the stomach give the mouth some rest, and let it make a truce with us for five days35—for otherwise it is always making demands and never desists, receiving today and forgetting tomorrow. When it is full, it philosophizes about abstinence; when it is deflated, it forgets such ideas.

13 Cf. Genesis 9:3.
14 Genesis 9:20-21.
15 Exodus 24:18.
16 Exodus 32:6.
17 Genesis 25:29-34.
18 I Kings 1:13-16, Septuaginta.
19 Judges 13:4.
20 Judges 13:14.
21 Another name for an ascetic; cf. St. Basil the Great, “Epistle 44,” §1, Patrologia Græca, Vol. XXXII, col. 361C.
22 III Kings 19:8-13.
23 III Kings 17:17-24.
24 III Kings 17:1.
25 IV Kings 4:39-41.
26 Elissaios, as a Prophet, was an ascetic and therefore a practitioner of fasting.
27 Amianthus is a fine, silky type of asbestos.
28 Daniel 1:8-16.
29 Daniel 3:46-48, Septuaginta.
30 Daniel 3:50, Septuaginta.
31 Daniel 10:11.
32 Daniel 10:2-3 (where it is stated that Daniel drank no wine).
33 Daniel 6:16-22.
34 Exodus 20:10.
35 During five weekdays in Lent, the Fast is observed with greater strictness than on weekends, when wine and oil are permitted.

Read part three here.