The great Orthodox theologian Father Alexander Schmemann, in his book, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha">“Great Lent: The Journey to Pascha” (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974), pointed out that while fasting is not unique to Christianity, there is a unique aspect to Christian fasting. This uniqueness is “revealed to us in the interdependence of two events which we find in the Bible: one at the beginning of the Old Testament and the other at the beginning of the New Testament.”
The first is “the breaking of the fast” by the first man, Adam, when he ate the forbidden fruit. In doing so, original sin was revealed; the fast from sin was ended. The second was Jesus Christ, the New Adam, beginning his public ministry by fasting. “Adam was tempted and he succumbed to temptation,” stated Father Schmemann, “Christ was tempted and He overcame that temptation. The results of Adam’s failure are expulsion from Paradise and death. The fruits of Christ’s victory are the destruction of death and our return to Paradise.”
Food is necessary for life; it is, in a certain sense, life itself. But, as Father Schmemann asks, “what does it mean to be alive and what does ‘life’ mean?” He notes that we think of life in primarily physical and biological terms, focusing on the mechanisms of the material realm. But Jesus, when tempted by the devil to turn stones into bread, said, “It is written, One does not live on bread alone.” This was a reference to God’s words of warning to the Israelites, when he explained to them in the Pentateuch that the miraculous gift of manna was granted “in order to show you that not by bread alone does man live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the LORD” (Dt 8:3).
It is God who provides life in every form; he is the true Giver of Life. Death, wrote Father Schmemann, is the result of man rejecting life “as it was offered and given to him by God and preferred a life depending not on God alone but on ‘bread alone.’” By giving in to pride and rebelling against the Source of Life, Adam introduced death and radically changed the relationship between God and man. That breach could only be addressed by God-become-man, through the Incarnation. And having reached the beginning of his public work, the New Adam did what the first Adam failed to do: obey perfectly the commands and the will of God.
Fasting is an important means by which we can detach ourselves from a temporal necessity in order to see more clearly our need for supernatural food. Or, as Father Schmemann states: “Hunger is that state in which we realize our dependence on something else — when we urgently and essentially need food — showing thus that we have no life in ourselves. It is that limit beyond which I either die from starvation or, having satisfied my body, have again the impression of being alive. It is, in other words, the time when we face the ultimate question: on what does my life depend?”
On what does my life depend? There is a question for Lent. Actually, it is the question for Lent, because Lent is not the destination, but the road to the Cross and the Resurrection, when death is conquered by the death of the New Adam. That conquering of temptation and sin takes place in our daily lives, in the small deserts we walk and in the quiet wilderness in which we sometimes stand alone.
We need physical food. But we are truly sustained by God’s word and God the Word.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.