1) There is a group which denies the Fast in one way or another, deciding that it is just another negative in the life of the church, and of no particular benefit to their spiritual walk.
2) There is a group which sees the Fast as an inconvenience, something to be endured, even if disgruntledly, by increasing the fasting from Fridays to maybe an occasional Wednesday.
3) There is a group which sees the Fast as a spiritual tool, a blessing which brings focus once again to a life in need of repair.
Just about every community has people who fall into each of these groups. This past Sunday, after reminding the congregation that the Fast began today, one wonderful woman said to me before she left, "But it's so hard..." The reply to her was, "Great! It should be, and if it is, then you're doing it right!"
We see the word "fast", and we immediately snap to the issue of meat. But fasting is more than just a hamburger. Fasting is the removal from our daily lives of the things of excess, the things which tie us to this world, instead of the world to which we truly belong, of which we are citizens already.
One definition of "fasting" means to abstain from all food. When Jesus fasted in the wilderness for forty days, He ate nothing! Another definition of fasting means refraining from eating certain kinds of food. But fasting does not simply refer to food. We can "fast" from television, from gossip, from internet addictions, from alcohol, from outbursts of anger, or from using foul language. If we see fasting as only the elimination of beef from an otherwise over the top diet, we're missing the point. How? Even vegans can "fast" - by eliminating from their diets those things which perhaps they find most enjoyable. Move toward some level of discomfort! As stated before, it should be difficult!
Why do we fast now, for the Advent season? It's a question that is posed so very often inside Orthodox churches, mostly because it is counter to what the world is doing right now.
Beginning with the weeks we are in, you can walk into any shopping area and you are perceptibly attacked by holiday music (we're no longer allowed to have Christmas carols....), by holiday trees (we're no longer allowed to call them Christmas trees.....), by decorations (that say Happy Holidays!, not Joyous Nativity!), by an endless onslaught of marketing designed to separate you from the resources God has given you under the premise that huge misery will result unless you spend more than you have to purchase happiness for others.
Does anyone deny this scenario?
And what is the Church doing right now, as opposed to that which we outline above?
Today in the Church, we are watching a young maiden, probably in her mid-teen years, who is in the 34th week of her pregnancy. She is unmarried, but betrothed. She is aware that the Child she carries is a gift from God, in a way that has never occurred before in human history. She is obedient to her betrothed and she is preparing for a long journey for the purpose of being counted in a census. Beyond this, she prays - for her Child, for God's will to be done. And she prepares as best she can for the coming of this precious Child into the world.
Seeing the difference between the Mother of God and her actions in these weeks, and those actions that are occurring in the world around us, actions which the world around us calls us to conform to its deformed and distorted reality, which should we choose to follow? The world? Or should we follow the Mother of our Lord? And if we can't find inspiration in the Mother of God, then consider God the Son, who is in the Father, Who is coming into the world, Who has condescended to occupy the womb of this same maiden - He who is above all creation, Who cannot be contained, is taking flesh from His own creation. He who possesses all things comes devoid of everything, taking only what the young maiden provides.
It's not that these are "unhappy" things. But they are very serious things - things which even in our own lives cause us to ponder and fret. Find a family near you who is having a baby in December and see if their lives are filled with the raucous partying of the world, or if they are tempered, metered, seriously caring for themselves so that the coming into the world of their own "new life" will be a coming for which they are prepared and have taken all prudent precautions.
Fasting is our way of doing such preparation on a spiritual level, of "cleaning our own house." At each Proskomedia, we pray portions of the Troparion of the Pre-Feast of the Nativity of our Lord, which says, "Bethlehem, be prepared, for Eden is opened to all. Ephratha, be made ready, for in the cave the Tree of Life has blossomed forth from the Virgin, for her womb has been shown to be a spiritual Paradise, in which is the Divine Plant, from which having eaten we will live, and not die as did Adam. Christ is born to raise the image that had fallen!" The tree from which Adam and Eve ate caused them to die in the flesh. The Tree within the Virgin is the true Tree of Life, and eating of His Body and Blood brings us to eternal life in Christ!
We live in a fallen world, and our sins separate us from our God. Our only hope is for God Who created us in the beginning to come and to re-create us again. Saint Athanasius says, "the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning."
Our Creator is coming - in 40 short days. Let us fast according to our individual ability and need. First, let us fast from judging others. Then, let us turn our focus inward, seeking to cleanse our souls so that when the Divine Child enters the world, and in so doing presents Himself anew to us, we present ourselves to Him as a manger, a lowly place for certain, but one that wishes to welcome Him with all our being!