A few days ago, the Eastern Orthodox Christians began the Nativity fast, the 40 day-period of renewal prior to the Nativity of Christ (or Christmas). I often have friends who asked me what fasting means. Before I can even attempt an answer, some tell me that it shows a faulty theology because it implies a God who would require you to punish yourself. Others agree that it must be quite a healthy endeavor (from a strictly culinary perspective, one becomes practically a vegan during the fast), but why would anyone pay for one’s sins with fasting?
Of course, fasting does not have much to do with any of these views. To attempt to explain it, I will tell you a true story. Aspazia Otel Petrescu, who spent 14 years in communist prisons, narrates in her With Christ in Prison how one of the torturers beat her with a wide and long belt. “He’d lift it up in the air and would hit me with all his might.” She could not scream and she could not cry. “That’s how I am,” she continues the story. “This made the beaters even angrier though, because they thought I was defiant. I felt the pain, all right, but the pain silenced me. One time, this horrible beater bent down to see how I was doing and he saw my face grimacing with pain, and his face lit up. Just seeing the satisfaction on his face made me hate him. That was the only time in my life when I felt hatred. I actually got scared of that feeling, I realized that hatred is destructive, so I fasted for 40 days and ate only in the evenings to forgive him.”
Beyond the gruesomeness of the communist prisons, this story tells us, I think, one significance of the fast. Mrs. Aspazia Otel Petrescu did not fast to be forgiven, but rather to forgive. She did not fast to obtain something in exchange, but rather to be able to repair the brokenness that she was experiencing in herself (and so in the world) because of lack of forgiveness. She was fasting in order to make herself able to recover beauty and to accept the one whom she cut from her presence, the torturer, back into her world. In some sense, fasting helps us depart from ourselves (kenosis) and, becoming lighter, we would find again the strength to live for the other, any other.
Fasting has sacramental tonalities, I think: it renders this earthly world back to the Kingdom so that Christ can be born in it.