Toxic cleanses and detox fasts are all the rage nowadays. Google “detox” or “cleanse” and legions of websites virtually leap out of the screen breathlessly trumpeting this or that program that is guaranteed to rid the body of dangerous (but unnamed) toxins, to restore health and vitality, improve circulation, stimulate proper functioning of the liver, kidneys and other organs, reset the body’s metabolism, and make you a happier, healthier, more beautiful and successful person. All of these programs involve temporarily restricting one’s diet to water, juice, cabbage, grapefruit or to a scoop-a-day of some world-renowned concoction that you never heard of, invented by the world-renowned doctor that you never heard of, available for a limited time only for $79.95 plus shipping and handling…
With all the buzz, it is certainly curious that the Armenian Church’s ancient program of regular toxic cleansing has largely fallen out of use, especially in the United States. Even though fasting was practiced and advocated by Jesus himself and has always been an important part of Armenian Church life, today many don’t see any use for it. During Great Lent, the church’s great fasting season, some wonder what harm there could possibly be in enjoying a nice steak or a glass of wine. Does God really keep track of the daily diet of his billions of children? Others who try to follow the church’s Lenten discipline by “giving up” meat, chocolate, alcohol or other treats, often do so more to lose weight or to trim unhealthy habits than out of more properly Christian concerns. Surely Jesus didn’t fast in the desert for 40 days because he was worried about his waistline or cholesterol levels.
Whatever you’re “giving up” for Lent—or if you’ve already “given up” on the Lenten fast itself—you may be surprised to learn the Armenian Church’s traditional understanding of fasting: how our ancestors fasted and why. As is so often the case, if we probe just beneath the surface, the Treasury of the Armenian Church’s historical and theological legacy provides clarity and sensible, time-honored insights on Christian life.
It would require a thick chapter to trace the history of Christian fasting in Armenia. Actually that chapter was written more than a hundred years ago in Venice by the Armenian scholar Fr. Vartan Hatsuni. His remarkable book, Meals and Feasts in Ancient Armenia [Ճաշեր եւ խնճոյք հին Հայաստանի մէջ] shows that the earliest writings in the Armenian language already mention fasting as an established ingredient of Christian life in the homeland, a reverent practice that will captivate Armenians through modern times. Countless are the incidental references in Armenian history to fasting by the great heroes of the Armenian Church including St. Gregory the Illuminator, Sts. Hripsimé, Gayané and Nooné, St. Mesrob Mashdots, St. Sahag Bartev, Sts. Vartan and Ghevont and their martyred companions, and all the rest.
And yet the diversity in perspectives and approaches to fasting from one Armenian Church teacher to another is dizzying. Beyond a basic agreement that meat should be avoided during the Lenten fast, hardly two authorities can agree on the list of permitted and forbidden Lenten foods. Even the exact days when we should and should not fast will be debated by Armenian Church fathers.
This diversity—not to say disparity—in what would seem to be the essential “rules” of fasting complicates the task of the Christian Armenian who simply wants to follow “the tradition of the Armenian Church.” Simply put, there is no single, oﬃcial rule or canon that instructs us when to fast, how to fast, and exactly what foods to cut out. This inconsistency contrasts with the relative clarity in this regard that we ﬁnd in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and other churches.
Simply put, there is no single, oﬃcial rule or canon that instructs us when to fast, how to fast, and exactly what foods to cut out.
Yet if the Armenian Church does not have concise, universally applicable rules governing fasting, it is above all because neither Jesus, nor the earliest Christians rigidly regulated the fast either. For them there is no one right way to fast. Fasting is not a fundamental, right-or-wrong exercise that must be enforced by strict rules in order for it to be eﬀective. One can no more mandate one way to fast than one could deﬁne one way to pray. To be sure, there are some generally accepted norms concerning fasting, but within that framework there is broad ﬂexibility and variation in speciﬁcs.
St. Paul’s famous discourse on fasting illustrates the sober and tolerant attitude of the early church toward fasting.
As for the man who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not for disputes over opinions. One believes he may eat anything, while the weak man eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats; for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand. One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. He also who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; while he who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. [Romans 14:1-6]
For the earliest Christians, fasting was not an end in itself. It was a discipline that Jesus’ followers adopted willingly, not out of blind obedience. It is very clear from St. Paul’s words that some Christians fasted or abstained from certain foods, and some did not. Neither group was to be condemned. Above all, all were obliged to tolerate the various fasting practices of others. Under no circumstances should they permit fasting to become a cause for dissension. St. Paul continues—
If your brother is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be spoken of as evil.
For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit; he who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.
Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. [Romans 14:15-19]
For the Apostle, fasting is but a means to the higher goals of the Christian faith: “walking in love…righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit…mutual upbuilding.” Understood this way, fasting can never be reduced to a blind act of compliance with a law. Not only is forced, legalized fasting ineﬀective, it runs counter to the essential calling of the church and can even “destroy the work of God.”
The same tolerant attitude is found in early Christian Jerusalem, which was the most important source of the newborn Armenian Church’s liturgical and devotional practices. Just a few decades after the Christian conversion of Armenia, a Spanish nun named Egeria traveled to the Holy Land and took notes on the details of Christian life in Jerusalem. One of her diary entries describes how the early Christians of Jerusalem fasted during Lent:
These are their customs of fasting in Lent. There are some who eat nothing during the whole week between their meal after the Sunday service, and the one they have after the service on Saturday in the [Church of the Holy Resurrection in the Holy Sepulcher]…The people known here as apotactites [monks] as a rule have only one meal a day not only during Lent, but also during the rest of the year. Apotactites who cannot fast for a whole week in the way I have described eat a dinner half way through Thursday. Those who in Lent cannot manage this eat on two days of the week, and those who cannot manage this have a meal every evening. No one lays down how much is to be done, but each person does what he can; those who keep the full rule are not praised, and those who do less are not criticized. That is how things are done here. [Diary of Egeria 28]
Egeria observed a tolerant attitude in fourth-century Jerusalem as regards the Lenten fast, fully in the spirit of St. Paul’s interpretation. Along with much of the Armenian Church’s worship tradition—church services, hymns, prayers, rituals, and feast days—this original, broad-minded understanding of fasting makes its way to Armenia.
The ﬁfth-century manual of Christian life known as Hajakhabadoom/Յաճախապատում, traditionally attributed to St. Gregory the Illuminator, recommends fasting as a valuable Christian discipline, while it maintains a relatively lenient stance as to particulars.
Somewhat later, in the year 719ad, we ﬁnd the same spirit in the Armenian Synod of Dvin, convened by the great pastor and reformer, Catholicos Hovhannes Otsnetsi. Canon 7 of this Synod sought to reconcile a dispute in Armenia that concerned the Lenten fast. Some people were fasting continuously for the entire forty days, while others moderated their fast or lifted it completely on Saturdays and Sundays of Lent, following the ancient and universal tradition of the church.
And as for observing and breaking [the fast] on Saturdays and Sundays during the forty-day fast, this shall be left to each one’s will, as long as [each] gives thanks to God without scruple and adversity, and without speaking ill of the companion who desires to eat in moderation. Both are acceptable to God and are in the tradition of Christ’s church.
Catholicos Hovhannes’ tolerant approach to the Lenten fast is a master stroke of wisdom and prudence. It is also entirely in keeping with the early church’s original understanding of fasting. History shows that with some prominent exceptions, the Armenian Church generally remained faithful to this spirit throughout the ﬁrst Christian millennium. Beginning around the turn of the millennium, for reasons that are not entirely clear, a much more rigorous and legalistic attitude toward Christian life in general, and toward fasting practices in particular, emerges in some northern Armenian monasteries. Advocates of this extremist view forgo St. Paul’s spirit of tolerance and his insistence that fasting is always at the service of higher Christian ideals.
Instead, the extremists will turn to the Old Testament’s more black-and-white approach to fasting. For the Jews, fasting was simply an article of the Law. Failure to fast according to well-deﬁned rules was tantamount to rejecting God, case closed. The Armenian extremists likewise insisted upon very severe fasting rules, which, they claimed, applied to everyone without exception. The most militant of them prohibited meat, ﬁsh, wine, and dairy, and sometimes even honey, nuts, and anything that comes from the grapevine including raisins, vinegar, and even grape seeds and skins. Not surprisingly, much of this list is excerpted from the Old Testament book of Numbers 6:1-4. It is in this same era that we also encounter increasingly strident Armenian intolerance of the fasting practices of neighboring Christians, especially Greek-speaking Orthodox.
By the 12th century, there is a concerted eﬀort to rectify these exaggerations, especially in the writings of St. Nersess “the Gracious” Shnorhali (†1173) and St. Nersess Lambronatsi (†1198). These wise teachers will passionately defend the early church’s traditional view of fasting as a precious, yet ancillary practice that always serves toward the attainment of even higher Christian goals. But their best eﬀorts at restoring the ancient, apostolic function of the fast will have only limited success.
Which brings us to the hodgepodge situation we ﬁnd today. Some people approach Lenten fasting meticulously, abstaining from meat, dairy, ﬁsh, and other foods for the duration of Lent. Others choose to “give up” a particular food for Lent without necessarily realizing what they are doing or why. Meanwhile, most people do not fast at all, writing it oﬀ as an archaic exercise of religious fanatics. Yet leaﬁng through the vast literature that our saintly ancestors have left us, beneath the controversies and disagreements, a few essential principles emerge regarding fasting, which can be of use to us today.
Fasting is not about “giving up” anything
Fasting is not a sacriﬁce or an exercise in self-deprivation. Those who think that God is pleased when we abstain from this or that food, or when we fast from all food for a period of time do not know the Bible. Already in the Old Testament, the Prophet King David understood that God has no use for our sacriﬁces. In one of the most frequently used Psalms in the Armenian Church’s worship services, the Psalmist admits that God has “no delight in sacriﬁce; were I to give a burnt oﬀering, you would not be pleased. The sacriﬁce acceptable to God is a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” [Psalm 50(51): 16-17]
Turning to the New Testament, we recall the scribe who declared that to love God with all the heart, and with all understanding, and with all strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, was much more important to God than our rituals and sacriﬁces. Jesus commended him for this insight, saying, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” [Mark 12:33].
No, God is not interested in our petty oﬀerings, and he surely takes no satisfaction in people depriving themselves, much less hurting themselves. What God wants is us. If there is any sacriﬁce that God desires from me it is not this or that oﬀering or ritual, but the complete consecration of my entire life to God. “Present your bodies as a living sacriﬁce, holy and acceptable to God,” St. Paul challenges us [Romans 12:1].
If there is any sacriﬁce that God desires from me it is not this or that oﬀering or ritual, but the complete consecration of my entire life to God.
The only sacriﬁce that really matters is the one sacriﬁce of God’s Son, Jesus Christ on the Cross at Golgotha some 2000 years ago. Compared to that one unsurpassed demonstration of love, any subsequent sacriﬁce by us mortal humans is meaningless and pointless. God sacriﬁced his only Son, his beloved Son, as a sign of his undying and unconditional love for his human creatures. What could my forsaking a candy bar during Great Lent possibly add to that?
Fasting Alone Will Not Make Me A Better Christian
In our corporate, proﬁt-driven and productivity-obsessed culture, many people believe that fasting, praying, attending the liturgy, reading the Bible, and ﬁnancially supporting the church are all steps in a grand religious staircase that eventually elevates us to heaven. Like a young boy ticking oﬀ his merit badges in pursuit of the rank of Eagle Scout, we think (and we have sometimes been mistakenly taught) that by following the traditions of the church, we earn our way toward salvation. Many assume, consequently, that fasting will automatically make us better people in God’s eyes.
But the notion that any paltry achievement of our own could earn us a ticket to heaven is fatally misguided.
The church condemned that idea as a heresy long ago. We cannot save ourselves. No magic pill, no donation, no pious tradition, no devotional act, nothing apart from Jesus Christ can save us. Long ago God stretched out his divine and healing hand to rescue humanity by sending his only Son into this world and into our fallen humanity. When the Son of God entered this world he brought salvation with him. Heaven and earth were reunited. He bridged the gap between God and us. As we repeat every Sunday in the Eucharistic Prayer of our Badarak, when God became man and was born of the holy Mother of God, the Virgin Mary, “this earth became heaven.” That is salvation. God is here with us. Heaven is here on Earth. Salvation is available for the taking. It is a pure gift of God. All we can do is extend our hands and receive it gratefully, or rather, receive Him gratefully through faith.
And there is the catch. Starting with Adam and Eve, we ﬁckle human beings have a nasty tendency to get caught up in our own vain amusements. Instead of opening our eyes to God in faith; instead of seeking to know God more deeply; instead of following Jesus’ example and becoming radically loving and forgiving people, we make our own rules. We invest our time and money in other temporary diversions. We play with our gadgets. We buy shoes. We try to ﬁll spiritual voids with material things. In a word, instead of recognizing the eternal gift of God’s love in Jesus Christ and grabbing it, we turn away from it through our actions, words, and daily decisions.
God will never impose his love upon us. We are free to take it or leave it. But to pull away from the embrace of the Creator spells death and damnation.
So we do not fast in order to achieve salvation. We do not study the Bible to earn brownie points. We do not celebrate the Badarak to reach out to God. It’s the other way around. God has already reached out to us. Salvation has already been handed to us long ago in the person of Jesus Christ the Son of God. Anything and everything we do in the church is a celebration of salvation already achieved by Jesus Christ. Fasting and other devotional practices remind us of who we really are—God’s beloved children. Fasting refocuses our eyes of faith. It recalibrates our lives, allowing us to recognize the divine gift of God’s life-giving love, and to seize it gleefully and gratefully.
Fasting Is About Reducing Excess To Make Room For God
From a purely Christian perspective there is nothing inherently sinister about meat. Sure, today we know that too much red meat can lead to heart disease and other serious illnesses. And today many people of various religions (or no religion) avoid meat for moral, economic and environmental reasons. But the reason that Christians do not eat meat during Lent and other fasting periods has little to do with any of this.
Christians avoid meat because it is generally an indicator of excess. Today many Americans eat meat three times a day or more. Yet in most of the world, meat is but an occasional luxury. The goal of fasting is to trim from our lives all manner of excess—not just food—so that we may focus on what is truly important and life-giving and rededicate ourselves to that. The foods that our church fathers avoided during the Lenten fast—meat, ﬁsh, alcohol, dairy items, sweets—were for most people of the times occasional, extravagant indulgences.
There is great wisdom in the old adage, “You are what you eat.” In our aﬄuent society many are those who battle obesity; who use food as a source of solace, and yes, as their friend in the brutally competitive and often unjust and lonely world in which we live. Others ﬁnd their refuge in alcohol, in shopping, gambling, and other diversions. And that is the point. Such excesses and diversions divert us away from God. They cloud our perception of our Creator and Sustainer by crowding our lives with non-essentials, be they food, chemicals, amusements, addictions, neurotic busy-ness, or chronic self-absorption.
Fasting removes such clutter from our lives so that we may more plainly recognize God in the world around us, in people around us, and in our very own lives.
Fasting removes such clutter from our lives so that we may more plainly recognize God in the world around us, in people around us, and in our very own lives. Fasting helps us to simplify our lives, to ﬁnd the courage to put aside the crutches and vanities that can only provide us ﬂeeting consolation. Fasting helps us to face our own reality, bitter though it may be, so that we may appeal to the only source of lasting peace and healing, Jesus Christ. Thoughtful, prayerful fasting helps us to reestablish, in the words of St. Paul, “undivided devotion to the Lord” [1Corinthians 7:35].
An Effective Fast Must Be a Thoughtful, Prayerful Fast
Few of us in the United States today would consider meat loaf, sirloin steak, or a chicken salad sandwich as lavish self-indulgences. For better or worse, in our aﬄuent society, these are items on the menu of every corner diner. So what have I really accomplished during Lent by forgoing prime rib in favor of shrimp? Or by lightening my coﬀee with soy milk instead of half-and-half? Or for that matter, by going strictly vegan for forty days while I restock my wardrobe in time for Easter?
“Excess” is a relative term. Most Armenian monks steered clear of meat and wine all the time, or at least during Lent. Yet they recognized meat as an important nutrient, and they acknowledged certain medicinal qualities of wine. Many therefore allowed the sick and aged to partake of them in moderation, as needed. When pondering the Lenten fast, the question is not, “What shall I give up this year?” It is rather, What is holding me back from devoting myself more wholeheartedly to the Lord? What am I overindulging in? What is sucking up time that I could better use for the sake of more Christian pursuits? How am I spending my money? What can I relinquish to simplify my life and make it more Christ-like? Thoughtful, prayerful answers to these questions will lead one to the true meaning of Lenten fasting.
Yet what is the beneﬁt in devoting myself through fasting to the true spirit and intent of Great Lent, only to dive headlong back into my former carefree ways come Easter Sunday? Great Lent should not be our annual excursion into Christian virtue. It should challenge and shape the way we live our lives every day of the year.
Fasting is a personal but not a private matter
De-cluttering our lives of foods and behaviors that detach us from God’s love is a highly personal, prayerful commitment. Beginning with Jesus himself (see Matthew 6:16-18 below), and echoing through St. Paul to every corner of early Christendom, is the insistence that we should keep our fasting practices to ourselves. They should not be the topic of discussion, lest they become the root of conceit or criticism of others. “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God,” St. Paul says in the context of fasting (see above).
Yet if fasting is a personal commitment, its objectives are plainly interpersonal: Remember St. Paul’s words: “walking in love…righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit…mutual upbuilding.” Fasting is about the healing of the community of God’s people, the church. Good, prayerful fasting should lead to an outgoing, compassionate spirit of reconciliation among the members of the church, which mends and strengthens that community and fosters communion with one another and thereby with Jesus Christ. So while the details of my Lenten fast should be between God and me, my fasting is the business of the church. To put it another way, my fasting aﬀects you and your fasting aﬀects me.
This is why the church fathers may have disagreed on the details of fasting but they never backed down from the conviction that every Christian should join the church in the Lenten fast—not because it is a law or sacred tradition, not because it pleases God, but because it builds up the church and that is what pleases God.
Everything we say about fasting is negotiable and contingent upon that ultimate goal. As my teacher and mentor Fr. Robert Taft used to growl, “The Lord does not care one whit about what kind of oil you put on your salad. But he will take you to task on whether you loved your neighbor.”
Thoughtful, prayerful, mindful fasting obliterates the myth that I am in control of my destiny or that I am self-suﬃcient.
That is also why fasting and charity (loving your neighbor) always go together. Thoughtful, prayerful, mindful fasting obliterates the myth that I am in control of my destiny or that I am self-suﬃcient. It exposes the shameless lie of modernism, that I can achieve happiness and fulﬁllment by looking within and tapping my own inner potential. It smashes the idol of unbridled consumerism, which contends that all of my longings can be acquired in the marketplace; that my perceived shortcomings can be ﬁxed for a price. Mindful fasting reminds me that I am not my own; I belong to another, to God who purchased me at the price of His Son’s life [1Corinthians 6:19]. When I fast and feel a yearning for meat, wine, chocolate, or my iPhone, I am gently reminded that my life really is dependent on others and my real nourishment can only come from God.
The Lord Jesus spoke relatively little about fasting. His most eloquent message was perhaps his own example. Jesus began his ministry with a forty-day fast. [Matthew 4:2]
As for speciﬁc instructions regarding fasting, they amount to two general directives. In the ﬁrst one, Jesus associates fasting with bereavement, the sorrow that we feel when we lose the company of a loved one.
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. And no one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; if it is, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” [Matthew 9:14-17]
From this analogy, the Armenian and other ancient churches concluded that fasting is incompatible with the Divine Liturgy because when we celebrate the Divine Liturgy, we eat at the Lord’s table, “the bridegroom is with us,” and we share in Holy Communion with Him. The oldest tradition of the Armenian Church is therefore never to fast on Sundays, or on any day when the Divine Liturgy is celebrated, including Saturdays when the Divine Liturgy is traditionally celebrated for the commemoration of the saints. The very same principle holds for Saturdays and Sundays of Great Lent, and so traditionally the Lenten fast is moderated, if not lifted entirely on those days. As we have seen, however, this original clarity became tarnished by the more stringent practice of some medieval Armenian monasteries, which upheld a strict fast even on Saturdays, Sundays and feast days, when the Badarak was celebrated, even if this is contrary to the unanimous practice of the early Armenian Church. This has resulted in confusion that lasts until today.
Perhaps even more relevant for our times is another decree that Jesus makes concerning fasting, this time within his Sermon on the Mount, the veritable Constitution of Christian Life. There, at the epicenter of his Sermon, right after he teaches his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus says this:
“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disﬁgure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” [Matthew 6:16-18]
Even if elsewhere Jesus had compared fasting to mourning, his point was not that fasting is associated with sadness, per se, but with longing—an instinctive yearning for our Creator, that is coded into the fabric of every human being created in God’s image. In this passage, which is read every year in the Armenian Church on the day before Great Lent, Jesus makes it clear that fasting is an established and wholesome Christian institution. More than that, inasmuch as it leads to the strengthening of the Body of Christ, fasting should make us happy. It should ﬁll us with hopeful, joyful expectation.
“Anoint your head and wash your face,” in the language and imagery of Jesus’ times means to take a shower, get dressed in your nicest clothes and put on cologne or perfume. Prepare yourselves, in other words, for a celebration. It is a wedding, really, where we, together with all the members of Christ’s Body, the Church, eagerly compose ourselves to see the Lord. This is the reward of fasting. Don’t give it up!