For Eastern Orthodox Christians, this week is the fifth week of Lent, a period in the Christian liturgical calendar commemorating the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert before beginning his public ministry, according to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Lent or (Great Lent) is observed continuously for 40 days starting on Clean Monday and ending on Lazarus Saturday before Holy Week and Easter (called Pascha in the Easter Orthodox tradition).
Yet, Eastern Orthodox Christians fast during specified fasting periods of the year, which include not only Great Lent, which is seen as the Fast of fasts for the Feast of feasts, Holy Pascha, but also on every Wednesday and Friday (except on special holidays), together with extended fasting periods before Christmas (the Nativity Fast), after Pentecost (the Apostles Fast) and in early August (the Dormition Fast).
Unlike in Judaism, where fasting is defined as total cessation from all food and drink, including water; in the Orthodox Christian Church, fasting is usually considered abstaining from certain foods during specific days or periods, and it may also include refraining from marital relations, and other restrictions (social, drinking, smoking etc). Certainly, it is a time when there is increased focus on prayer, personal ascetism, and the transformation of the human person.
But why exactly do Orthodox Christians fast? A story that demonstrates the reason that Orthodox Christians fast is that of a wealthy businessman who went to retreat at a distant monastery. His journey to the monastery was a sincere one; it was a journey in which he wished to grow closer to God. When he arrived at the monastery, he was warmly greeted. Later, he was brought before the abbot of the monastery to seek spiritual guidance and advice. While there, the abbot asked the man if he would like a glass of water. When the man responded positively, the abbot began to pour him some water. The abbot poured and poured until the water reached the very tip of the glass; but he didn’t stop! Instead, he kept pouring and pouring so that the water overflowed the rim of the glass; ran onto the table; and drenched the expensive suit which the man was wearing.
Jumping up in a frenzy, the man yelled at the abbot, “What are you doing? Look at what you did to my suit!” Turning to the man, the abbot said, “You are like this glass of water. You are so full of concerns; concerns for riches and other anxieties of the world. You are completely full. There is no space for you to hold anything else inside. There is no room for God to come in. Before God can come in, you must empty yourself and make room for Him to enter.”
This story demonstrates how fasting can help emptying ourselves from the cares and concerns of this world. As such, it becomes a means of preparation which can enable us to experience God. Concerns, attachment to wordily things, excessive eating and drinking, and irresponsible behaviour, all have an impact on the soul. The purpose of fasting is not to punish our bodies but to learn discipline, to gain control of those things that are indeed within our control but that we so often allow to control us. Food especially dominates the lives of many people and, as such, emphasis is placed on it. The Church advises to start from food; controlling the quality and quantity of food can benefit the spiritual position of a person.
Fasting is linked to the principle in Orthodox theology of the synergy between the body (Greek: soma) and the soul (pneuma). Orthodox Christians do not see a dichotomy between the body and the soul but rather consider them as a united whole and believe that what happens to one affects the other (known as the psychosomatic union between the body and the soul). This union is further manifested by the Incarnation, wherein Christ, by taking a human body, has made the flesh an inexhaustible source of sanctification.
Throughout the history of the Church, important theologians and saints elaborated on the value of fasting. St. Basil the Great in his Lenten homilies notes that fasting is as old as humanity itself, as it was the first command that we received from God: “You shall not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:17). According to Basil, it was a failure to fast that led to the fall in Eden. As such, fasting is among the remedies to rectify our disobedience: “It is because we did not fast that we were banished from paradise. So let us fast that we may return to it” (First Homily on Fasting, 4th century).
If lack of discipline and self-control are signs of immaturity, then practising self-restraint aids the soul in acquiring maturity. Early Christians were adamant that one should always guard against attachment [to worldly things]; for this is what is harmful to the soul (Abba John, 525 AD). In that sense, the more we practice abstinence, the more mature we become, passing from the immaturity of immediate gratification to the maturity of regulated consumption. For fasting is “the companion of sobriety and the craftsman of self-control” (St Basil.). Self-control in particular, St. Paul identifies as one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:23). The Greek word used by Paul is egkrateia (ἐγκράτεια) which is composed of two other words, en meaning “from within” and kratos from a root meaning “to perfect.” 
Ultimately, however, Orthodox Christian fasting is not to be understood as a self-centred practice. Fasting is not merely a self-improvement technique. We read in Tobit that ‘[…] prayer is good when accompanied by fasting, almsgiving and righteousness’ (Tobit12:6), and we see the link between fasting, praying, almsgiving and good works. Successful fasting is that which facilitates prayer; a deeper, mystical connection with God that allows for intimacy with the Lord, who reveals His love for humanity. This powerful experience generates compassion in the heart of a person which leads to almsgiving; making the needs of other people our own.
Fasting is then inextricably linked with almsgiving. If fasting is not accompanied by charitable, good works, then that fast has not maximised its potential. By limiting food intake and growing in self-control, we acquire a way to share in the divine life of God. By going without food, we recognise through the hunger of our body, its innate hunger for communion with God.
Revd Dr George Tsourous is an Archdeacon in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain.
 Kallistos (Ware), Bishop; Mary, Mother (1978). The Lenten Triodion. South Canaan PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press (published 2002). pp. 35