"But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting." — Matthew 6:17

Dearly Beloved in the Lord,

These words of our Lord, as written in the Gospel of Saint Matthew, are addressed to each one of us personally. They underscore the centrality of fasting in the process of our salvation, as well as the vital need for fasting. Fasting is understood to be an expression of our own personal decision to reexamine our lives. It is also a spiritual exercise that is beneficial to our soul. As we begin this holy season of the Great Fast, I would like to draw your attention to the subject of fasting and address the very same words that are recorded by Saint Matthew to each and everyone personally.

Many things have been written about fasting. It is a topic that takes center stage throughout our ecclesial life and on various levels. Many of us identify fasting simply as abstinence from certain foods. Our reasoning is often based on such expressions like: “This is how we’ve always fasted.” It is easy to rationalize the issue with such misconceptions.

The Great Fast provides us with an opportunity to rediscover the true spiritual and moral dimensions of fasting. This is what our Lord had in mind when He spoke to the father of the boy possessed by a dumb spirit: “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29). This would indicate that fasting is not simply the abstinence from certain foods that tend to stir our passions, but it is also a conscious effort to control the body through the spirit. Christ said: “It is the Spirit Who gives life; the flesh profits nothing” (John 6:23). Fasting, properly conducted as a spiritual exercise, can be of tremendous assistance in controlling evil thoughts and deeds, thus enabling a person to move forward and grow in the life of Christ.

The moral understanding, temperance, control of passions and desires of the flesh is well expressed in a hymn of the Vespers Service on the Sunday of Orthodoxy: “In the time of abstinence Moses received the Law and led his people out of bondage; Elijah, when he fasted, closed the heavens; and the three youths of Abraham emerged victorious over a lawless tyrant by fasting.” With determination to spend this holy season of the Great Fast in a Christian Orthodox manner, let us seek strength from God and let us renew with increased rigor a life of prayer, spiritual exercise and almsgiving. Let us be in communion with God, not only in various formal liturgical prayers and services, but also with a “contrite heart and humbled spirit.” Let us seek the real purpose of fasting, which is to help us to loosen our tight grip on the cares of this world, and strengthen the voice of our conscience which tells us that the focus of our attention - in times of joy or sorrow - should always be our God and Heavenly Father.

Only by restoring our spiritual bond with God and purifying our conscience can we travel the road of fasting in Great Lent as true Orthodox Christians. Let us set our eyes upon the crucifixion of our passions and the resurrection of our faith which today may be lying dormant, so that it might serve as a living power and provide direction, dignity and beauty in our life.

May the Grace and Mercy of God be with you in all the days of the Great Lent.

With Love in Christ,
+ G E R A S I M O S
Metropolitan of San Francisco