ROUNDTABLE: Orthodox fasting: what's that?

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I didn’t have to think long at all about this particular Round Table topic: ‘What is the most commonly asked question you receive and how do you answer it?’ That’s an easy one for me, but I’ll need a moment to set it up for all you folks who aren’t Orthodox.

That’s because Orthodox Christians fast on a weekly basis. When we fast, we go without meat, dairy products, most kinds of fish, oil, wine, and hard liquor. We do that just about every Wednesday and Friday throughout the year, but there are also four longer fasting seasons—in fact, right now, we are in the Nativity Fast, a forty-day fast which runs from November 15 all the way up through December 25 (and, yes, many Orthodox Christians in America take a break on Thanksgiving).

But all that fasting also produces a lot of questions. So, each week, my email inbox is filled with questions like these: “There’s a catered lunch at work this coming Friday, and there’s not any fasting food on the menu—can I get a blessing to join in?” “My in-laws are having their annual holiday bash this coming weekend, and we really want to go because they’re such great people, but I imagine most of the food the serve will not meet the fasting requirements—can we get a blessing to go the party, anyway?”

Ninety-nine percent of the time, this is the way I respond to those emails: “May it be blessed! Enjoy the lunch/party!” So, it’s not like I’m The Food Police, and I’m responsible for Enforcing the Fast. In fact, the whole exchange is really something of a formality. But if you’ve read this far, then you’ve probably got all sorts of questions, so let’s just go ahead and consider some of those.

Here’s one: “OK, you say it’s a formality, but it’s a kind of creepy formality. I mean, do people really expect you to micro-manage their lives for them like that? Do they also ask your permission when they want to purchase a home or get married?”

Well, the first thing I should point out is that when folks ask for a blessing, they are not asking my personal permission. What they are asking is something much more profound: Does this decision I’m about to make reflect what the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are doing in this world? So, when folks talk to me about a major purchase or a significant relationship or what they are going to eat at work, they aren’t checking in with their cult leader; they are trying to discern what the Most Holy Trinity wants them to do in this particular situation, and they are asking their priest to assist them in that discernment.

Which pretty much leaves one final question: “Don’t people ever ask you about deeper, more significant things? Don’t they ever want to know why these senseless mass shootings happen or why folks get cancer? Don’t they ever ask you how they can be saved?”

Sure, but if folks are keeping the fasting days, then they are already going to have some significant insight into why awful stuff happens. However, it won’t be the kind of insight that can be reduced to talking points or summed up on a bumper sticker or expressed in an internet meme. What fasting does is bring us closer to the Most Holy Trinity, the Source of All Wisdom, and that kind of wisdom can only be experienced in our own hearts.

Father Aidan Wilcoxson is the pastor of St John Orthodox parish (www.theforerunner.org); he can be reached at fraidan@austin.rr.com.

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