The Gospel on Fasting
From Homilies Vol.1 Number 12
St. Nikolai Velemirovic
"If you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive men, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you your transgressions. Moreover when you fast, do not be as the hypocrites, of a sullen countenance; for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Amen, I say unto you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face; that you do not appear to men to fast, but unto your Father, which is in secret. And your Father, which sees in secret, shall reward you openly. Do not lay up treasures on earth, where moth and rust corrupt and where thieves break through and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust does corrupt, and where thieves do not break through and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."
For a soldier in battle, the first rule is not to surrender to the enemy. The commander gives prior warning that every soldier must keep out of the enemy’s traps, in order not to be tricked or captured.
A lonely, cold and naked soldier will be greatly tempted to give himself up to the enemy. The cunning enemy will make use of his predicament in all possible ways. The enemy may be hungry, but he will, to show the abundance that he has, throw the soldier a little bread. The enemy may be cold, ragged and naked, but he will, as though he were rich and well clad, throw the soldier some piece of clothing. He will give the soldier pamphlets, in which he boasts of there being complete security in his victory, and will lie to the poor soldier, as though there were many regiments of his friends to the left and to the right who had surrendered, or that his general had apparently been killed, or his king had sought terms of peace! He will promise the soldier a quick return to his home and hearth, and a good position, and money, all that a man of extreme necessity can only dream about. The general points out all these snares and traps of the enemy’s advance, and warns the soldier not to believe in them at any price, but to hold their position, not to surrender, and to keep faithful to their standard even at the cost of death.
Avoiding` surrender to the enemy is a particularly important rule for Christ’s soldiers in the battle with the evil spirit of this world.
Christ himself is the main weapon for us His followers; His presence with us and His power within us are our chief weapons. His final words as the Gospel proclaims: "Lo, I am with you always even unto the end of the age" (Mat. 28:20). And His presence has indeed shown itself throughout the ages with millions of His fearless warriors – apostles, martyrs, confessors, God-bearing Fathers, devout maidens, and holy men and women; and not only shown itself in times past clearly and certainly in our own day, to all who have not given themselves over to the evil spirit. He not only shows himself today, but will show himself to the end of time, f or He has prophesied that, at the end of time, great witnesses (Rev. 11:3) will appear. There is also the clear and certain power of His Body and Blood, His Passion, His words, His Precious and life-giving Cross, His Resurrection and His immortal glory. You who are convinced of Christ’s invincible power, that constantly flows (like electric current) through His faithful people, show this to others! And you who are not yet convinced, but desire to be convinced, do all that the Gospel demands of you, and you will be convinced. Let those who maliciously doubt remain in their doubt. They hurt, not God, but themselves; they do not doubt to God’s loss but to their own. The time will soon come when they will no longer be able to doubt, but faith will be given them.
But apart from Christ’s own presence and power, that are our main weapons in the battle against the evil spirit, the Lord has offered other sorts of weapons for us, with His aid, to try. These weapons are constant repentance , constant almsgiving, constant prayer, constant joy, in the Lord Jesus, and fear of judgment, and the doom of our souls, then willing endurance of suffering for His sake, with faith and hope, and the forgiving of insults, then looking on this world as thought it has no existence, partaking in His holy Mysteries, vigils and fasting, and it is our intention to give a commentary on this Gospel.
"If your forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their transgressions, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your transgressions."This is how today’s Gospel begins. Why does it begin this way You may say: What has this to do with fasting It is linked very closely, as there is always a close link between fasting and the end of the Gospel, where fasting is not spoken of, but the amassing of riches, not on earth but in heaven, where moth and rust do not corrupt, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For when fasting is understood in true, Christian sense and not in a legalistic, pharisaical way, then the forgiving of insults and abstaining from covetousness are a fast, and this the most important fast, or, if you wish, the greatest fruit of fasting. For indeed, there is very little value in abstaining from food without abstaining from the returning of insult and the illusion of earthly riches.
The Lord does not order us, with the power of authority: forgive men their sins! He leaves it to our free choice, to forgive or not. He will not violate our freedom, to force us to do something, for then our action would not be ours but His, and it would not have the value that it would have if we did it freely and willingly. It is true He does not command with the power of authority but He does point out to us what will otherwise overtake us; "Neither will your heavenly Father forgive your transgressions." And who will forgive us our sins, if God won’t? No one, either in heaven or on earth, no one at all. Men will not forgive us, because we did not forgive them. And God will not forgive us because men do not forgive us. Where are we, then, and where shall we be We shall live out our days under a mountain of sin , and in the next life the weight of that mountain will grow even greater through all eternity. Let us therefore practice not returning insult for insult, evil for evil, or paying off sin by sin. When you see a drunkard falling into the mud, will you lie in the mud beside
him? Or will you try to pick him up out of the mud. Every sin is mud, and ever passion is drunkenness. If your brother has rolled his soul in the mud of sin, why do you have to make your soul lie in that same mud. So restrain yourself from that which your brother does, and hasten to lift him up and clean him off, that your heavenly Father will lift you out and clean you off from all your sins, and place you among His angels at the Last Judgment.
" Moreover, when you fast:"says the Lord, "be not as the hypocrites, of a sullen countenance; for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Amen I say unto you, they have their reward." The hypocrites are they who fast, not for the sake of God, nor for their own souls, but because of men, that men should see their fasting and praise them for it. But as not all other men can take note every day what they eat and drink, they strive to make their faces show their fasting, for others to read it there. They disfigure their faces making them appear pale and sad, gaunt and absorbed. They do not use fragrant oils on their hair or wash their faces. And people look at them and marvel, and praise them. People reward them by their wonder; people give them the price of their fasting by their praise. What more can they expect from God? They have not been fasting for God’s sake, but for man’s. What sort of payment can they look to for their souls? They have not been fasting for their soul’s sake. They have been fasting for man’s sake, and men have praised them for this. They have indeed received their reward. And God owes them nothing, nor will He give them anything for their fasting in the life to come . . .
Christ puts interior fasting in first place: that of the soul, and then outward, bodily fasting. A man must strive to make fasting his own in his mind, heart and will, and then fulfill it willingly and joyfully in his body, as an artist first gives form to a picture in his soul, and then quickly and joyfully realizes it with his hand. So, bodily fasting should be joyful not sad . . . Fasting is a weapon, a very powerful weapon, in the battle against the evil spirit. A soldier in battle is cast down when he loses his weapons, for an unarmed man is forced either to flee or to surrender. And when he is given weapons, he rejoices, because he can hold his position and resist the enemy. How could a Christian not rejoice when he arms himself by fasting against the soul’s most fearsome opponents? How could his heart not rejoice and his face be radiant when he sees in his hands a weapon from which the enemy flees in confusion?
Gluttony makes a man gloomy and fearful, but fasting makes him joyful and courageous. And as gluttony calls forth greater and greater gluttony, so fasting c stimulates greater and greater endurance. King David practiced fasting for so long that he himself said: "my knees are weak through fasting." Psalm 108/109: 23. When a man realizes the grace that comes through fasting, he desires to fast even more. And the graces that come through fasting are countless.. By fasting, a man lightens both his body and his spirit from the weight of darkness and grossness. His body becomes light and vigorous, and his spirit bright and clear.
By fasting man lifts his soul above its earthly prison and penetrates through the darkness of animal life to the light of God’s kingdom, to his own true homeland.
Fasting makes a man strong, decisive and courageous before both men and demons.
Fasting also makes a man generous, meek, merciful and obedient.
By fasting, Elias closed the heavens, so that there was no rain fro three years; by fasting, he called down fire from heaven onto the idol-worshipers, and by fasting made himself so pure that he was able, on Horeb to talk with God.
By fasting, Daniel was saved from the lion’s den, and the three servants from the burning fiery furnace.
By fasting, King David lifted up his heart to the Lord. And God’s grace descended upon him, and he sang the sweetest and most surpassing of prayers that any man, before coming to Christ, has ever raised to God.
By fasting, King Jehoshaphat crushed his enemies, the Ammmonites and Moabites (chron. 20:23).
By fasting, the Jews were saved from persecution by Haman, the imperial deputy (Esther 4:3).
By fasting, the city of Ninevah was saved from the destruction that the Prophet Jonah has prophesied for it.
By fasting, John the Baptist became the greatest of those born of woman.
Armed with fasting, St. Anthony overcame all the hordes of demons and drove them from him. What only St. Anthony? An uncountable army of Christian Saints, both men and women, have purified themselves by fasting, strengthened themselves by fasting and become the greatest heros of human history, for they conquered themselves. And in conquering themselves, they conquered the world and Satan.
Finally, did not the Lord himself begin His ministry with a long forty day fast? And did He, in this way, clearly show that we mus make a serious beginning to our life as Christians with fasting First the fast and them all the rest comes together with and through the fast. By His own example the Lord showed us how great a weapon fasting is. With this weapon He vanquished Satan in the wilderness. Let us refrain from excessive eating an drinking, so that our hearts not fail us. Let us refrain from choosing earthly treasures, so that Satan may not separate us from Christ and suggest surrender to us. And when we fast, let us not fast for the praise of men but for our own soul’s salvation and the glory of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, whom angels and saints in heaven and the just on earth, glorify, together with the Father and the Holt Spirit – the Trinity co-essential and undivided, now and for ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.