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Archimandrite Symeon Koutsas-The Ancient Custom of Fasting

Archimandrite Symeon Koutsas-The Ancient Custom of Fasting

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Published by SymeonM33
This translation is taken from the first chapter of "The Fast of the Church: Why, When and How We Fast," Apostoliki Diakonia, 1991, pp. 7-26.

[“Η νηστεία της Εκκλησίας” του (τότε αρχιμανδρίτη) Συμεών Κούτσα, εκδόσεις “Αποστολική Διακονία”, σελ. 7-26.]
This translation is taken from the first chapter of "The Fast of the Church: Why, When and How We Fast," Apostoliki Diakonia, 1991, pp. 7-26.

[“Η νηστεία της Εκκλησίας” του (τότε αρχιμανδρίτη) Συμεών Κούτσα, εκδόσεις “Αποστολική Διακονία”, σελ. 7-26.]

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The Ancient Custom of Fasting
Archimandrite Symeon KoutsasWhat Is Fasting?
The word
 νηστεία
(fasting) is a compound and originates from the negative particle
ν
 
and the verb
ἐζθίω
 
and
ἔδω
 
and means
ηρώγω
 ,
(I eat, devour). 
1
 — 
the first word created
 — 
means one who
δέν
 
ἐζθίει
;
doesn‟t eat. Subsequently, from this word came the verb
νζηεύω
 
and the substantial abstract
νζηεία
 ,
which originally meant complete abstinence from food and drink; namely starvation and atrophy.Later, with the passing of time and the progressive shaping of the fasting custom, fasting no longermeant only complete abstinence from solid or liquid foods, but also the partial abstinence; namely fromcertain foods and the intake of other, specific foods. Thus, we have the distinction of different foods in
νζηήζιμες 
 
and 
ἀρηιμένες 
 
or 
 Ἀ ρηύω
 
means
καρσκεύω— 
I cook a food using seasonings. 
 Ἄ ρηζ
 
is the cooking; the preparation of food with the use of seasonings. And 
ἀρημύαηα
 
means the differentseasonings the culinary art uses.According to this distinction,
 νηστήσιμερ
 
foods are bread, vegetables, fruits and even nuts, dry foods,etc. On the contrary, 
are the various foods
 
we cook using olive oil or butter and various otherflavourings.
Ξηπουαγία
[lit.
”dry eating”
] is another term used in our ecclesiastical language that is connected withthe distinction of foods into
 νηστήσιμερ
 
and 
. 
Ξηπουαγία
means the intake of uncooked foodsand is roughly equated with the more developed/advanced meaning of fasting.We also frequently find the term
ἐγκπάτεια
[temperance or self-control; the virtue of one who mastershis desires and passions, especially his sensual appetites] in both the Holy Scriptures and ourecclesiastical tradition (the Patristic texts and ecclesiastical hymns). This term has a broader meaning andsignifies, so to speak, the entire spiritual struggle conducted by the Christian. But not infrequently used toalso denote the discipline of fasting.Fasting comprises an ancient ecclesiastical custom. However, as a religious phenomenon, it existedbefore the Christian Church. We encounter fasting amongst many ancient peoples, particularly of theEast, and not just with the Israelites. We even find fasting amongst the ancient Greeks and Romans. Thecommon viewpoint of all these peoples was that they could propitiate the gods and achieve moralpurification and their spiritual elevation through fasting.
Fasting in Old Testament Times
In the pages of the Old Testament the religious value of fasting is put forth crystal clear. It constitutesthe
expression of man‟s inner turn towards God and reveals the sinful man‟s contrition and repentance.
Through fasting, man is humbled before God. This humility and contrition
 — 
which demonstrates theaffliction [
κακοάθεια
] of fasting
 —gives man the right to warmly plead for God‟s mercy and help. This
conviction of the pious Israelites interprets in many of t
he Prophet David‟s Psalms (Ps. 34:13; 68:11;
108:24).
 
 
“I 
n the beginning of creation, when God created man, He immediately gave the command to fast and like a caring mother and excellent teacher, entrusted his salvation.
(St. John Chrysostom).
2
Many Church Fathers, particularly St. Basil the Great, maintain that fasting was legislated in Paradise
itself through the commandment God gave to Adam and Eve forbidding them to eat from “the tree of theknowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:16
-17). St. Basil writes characteristically:
“No, go back through history and inquire into the ancient origins of fasting. It is not a recent invention;
it is a heirloom handed down by our fathers. Everything distinguished by antiquity is venerable. Haverespect for the antiquity of fasting.
It is as old as humanity itself; it was prescribed in Paradise.
It was
the first commandment Adam received: „Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ye shall not eat.‟
 
Through the words „ye shall not eat‟ the law of fasting and abstinence is laid down.”
3
God Himself gave the commandment for a strict daily fast to Moses. This is the fast that occurredduring the Day of Atonement Feast; Yom Kippur (Lev. 16:29-30; 23:27-33). It comprises the only fastthat Mosaic Law orders and it was very strict; truly no eating. The Israelites wanted to atone God for theirsins with this fast.After the Babylonian captivity, other regular fasts were also fixed in memory of the great religious andnational events or various calamities (i.e. for the contrition of Moses of the two stone tablets of the Law[Ex. 32]; for the
Jerusalem‟s capture by the Babylonians [4 Kgs. 24
-25; 2 Chron. 36; Jer. 52:4, LXX],when the Temple of Solomon was set on fire [2 Chron. 36:19; Zach. 7:3], etc.).There were also temporary/extra fast days apart from the appointed fasts commemorated in the OldTestament. In the epoch of the Judges, a fast for the slaughter of thousands of Israelites by the sons of Benjamin occurred (Jdgs. 20:26). The Israelites for the unexpected death of their King, Saul (1 Kgs.
31:13). Still, David and his men fasted when they learned of the death of Saul‟s and his sons (2 Kgs. 1:11
-12).In the Old Testament, we also have individual, private fasts apart from the temporaray/extra fasts of theIsraelite nation or some group of people. For example, the Prophet Moses fasted 40 days and 40 nights on
top of Mount Sinai when he was about to receive the 10 Commandments from God: “he did n
either eat
 bread, nor drink water,” as the Book of Exodus mentions (34:28).
 
The Prophet Elias fasted “forty daysand forty nights” as he proceeded to “Mount Choreb” (3 Kgs. 19:8
-12).
“If fasting was a necessity in Paradise, it is much more a necessity outs
ide of Paradise. If fasting was an
useful medicine before the traumatism, it is much more useful after the traumatism”
(St. JohnChrysostom).
4
The Prophet Daniel also submitted to a strict fast. He says about himself: “
In those days I Daniel wasmourning three full weeks. I ate no pleasant bread, and no flesh or wine entered into my mouth, neitherdid I anoint myself with oil, until thre
e whole weeks were accomplished” (Daniel 10:2
-3). The inhabitants
of Nineveh responded to the Prophet Jonah‟s sermon with fasting and repentance: “
And the men of Nineve believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sack cloths, from the greatest of them to the least
of them” (Jonas 3:5). Thus they escaped destruction.
 
 
The Old Testament prophets extol the significance of fasting. The Israelites benefitted through fasting toreturn close to the living and true God.
“Return unto me,” God Himself orders through the Prophet Joel, “
with all your heart, and
with fasting
,and with weeping, and with lamentation and rend your hearts, and not your garments, and turn to the Lordyour God...
 
Sound the trumpet in Sion, sanctify a fast, proclaim a [solemn] service
” (Joel 2:12
-15).The Prophet Isaiah points out the danger of the standardization of fasting and puts forth those elementswhich constitute true fasting; fasting which is acceptable to God and erases sins:
“[Y
our] fasting, and rest from work, your new moons also, and your feasts my soul hates: ye havebecome loathsome to me; I will no more pardon your sins...your hands are full of blood. Wash you, beclean; remove your iniquities from your souls before mine eyes; cease from your iniquities; learn to dowell; diligently seek judgement, deliver him that is suffering wrong, plead for the orphan, and obtain justice for the widow...
” (Is. 1:13
-17).
And elsewhere: “
I have not chosen such a fast, saith the Lord; but do thou loose every burden of iniquity, do thou untie the knots of hard bargains, set the bruised free, and cancel every unjust account.Break thy bread to the hungry, and lead the unsheltered poor to thy house...Then shalt thou cry, and Godshall hearken to thee...and thy God shall be with thee continually
” (Is. 58:6
-11).
Jesus Christ and Fasting
Before we m
ention Christ‟s teachings, let‟s cite two holy figures whom the Gospels speak about in their 
first chapters and who could also be considered prototypes of fasters. The first is the Prophetess Anna,daughter of Phanuel from the Tribe of Asher who, together with the righteous Symeon, greeted the Lordin the Temple as a 40-
day old baby. So this is why the Evangelist Luke mentions that: “
did not departfrom the temple, offering divine services with fasti
ngs and petitions night and day” (Lk. 2:36).
 The other figure is St. John the Forerunner. The strictest life that is recounted (Mt. 3:1-4; Mk. 1:4-6)and his sermon in the desert of Judea comprised a shocking invitation to the people to return near to Godthrough repentance and fasting.
 
 
“Since we did not fast,
we fell from Paradise; let us, therefore, fast in order that we might return
thither”
(St. Basil the Great).
5
 
 
“Fasting withers sensual desire, prayer purifies the nous and prepares it for true theoria”
(St.Maximus the Confessor).
6
Now we come to the person of our Lord. There are two essential elements the Holy Gospels preserve
that define Christ‟s stance towards the custom of fasting; a custom that held a particular significance in
the religious conscience of His fellow Jews.When the Lord was about to go out for His public ministry, he was led to the desert by the Holy Spirit
and “
When he had fasted forty days and forty nights, Jesus was
hungry”(Mt. 4:1
-2). With a 40 day fast
 — during which “
He ate nothing in those days
,” as the
divine Luke writes (Lk. 4:2)
 — 
and prayer, Christprepared for his public action. And in this way, Christ did not simply ratify the law of fasting but

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