SERMON: Second Homily On Fasting by Basil the Great

Second Homily On Fasting by Basil the Great

1

Comfort the people, you priests!  Speak to the ears of Jerusalem!  Speech is of such a nature that it has the ability to increase the desires of the eager and to awaken the eagerness of the lazy and sluggish.  Thus after generals have arranged their army into a battle line, they give an encouraging speech before the battle begins, and their exhortations have such power that quite often they produce contempt of even death in the majority.  And as trainers and coaches escort their athletes to contests in stadiums, they exhort them vehemently about the necessity of toiling for the crowns, such that many of them are convinced to disdain their bodies out of ambition for victory.  And indeed, though it falls on me to array the soldiers of Christ for the war against invisible enemies and to prepare the athletes of piety for the crowns of righteousness through self-control, even I need a word of encouragement.

So then, brothers, what I am saying?  That it is valid for those who practice on a regular basis and train hard in wrestling academies to fatten themselves with plenty of food, so that they can engage in their toils with greater vigor?  Rather, I am saying that those to whom it is said, the fight is not against blood and flesh, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness, need to be trained for the contest through self-control and fasting.  While oil fattens the athlete, fasting strengthens the practitioner of piety.  Hence the more you deny the flesh, the more you render the soul radiant with spiritual health.  For it is not the body’s tone but rather the soul’s perseverance and steadfastness in affliction that results in strength against invisible enemies.

2

So then, fasting is beneficial at all times for those who undertake it.  For the demons dare not hurl abuses at the one who fasts, and the angels who diligently guard our life stand beside those who purify their soul through fasting.  And even more so now, when the summons to fast has been announced to the whole world. There is no island, no mainland, no city, no people, no remote place which does not hear the summons.  Rather soldiers, and travelers, and sailors, and merchants all likewise hear the announcement and receive it with great joy.  No one should remove himself from the register of those who fast, in which all peoples and all ages and all ranks of dignity are counted.  It is angels who register them in each church.  If you take a little pleasure in food, beware of losing your place in the angels’ register and having the one who raises the army consider you liable to an indictment of desertion.  It is less dangerous to be convicted of abandoning your weapons in battle than to be seen abandoning the great weapon of fasting.

Are you rich?  Do not mock fasting, deeming it unworthy to welcome as your table companion.  Do not expel it from your house as a dishonorable thing eclipsed by pleasure.  Never denounce yourself to the one who has legislated fasting and thereby merit condemnation to bitter penury caused either by bodily sickness or by some other gloomy condition.  Let not the pauper think of fasting as a joke, seeing that for a long time now he has had it as the companion of his home and table.  But as for women, just as breathing is proper and natural for them, so too is fasting.  And children, like flourishing plants, are irrigated with the water of fasting.  As for seniors, their long familiarity with fasting makes a difficult task easy.  For those in training know that difficult tasks done for a long time out of habit become quite painless. As for travelers, fasting is an expedient companion.  For just as self-indulgence necessarily weighs them down because they carry around what they have gorged themselves with, so too fasting renders them swift and unencumbered.  Furthermore, when an army is summoned abroad, the provisions the soldiers take are for necessities, not for self-indulgence.  Seeing that we are marching out for war against invisible enemies, pursuing victory over them so as to hasten to the homeland above, will it not be much more appropriate for us to be content with necessities as if we were among those living the regimented life of a military camp?

3

Endure suffering like a good soldier, and contend like a professional athlete, so that you may be crowned, all the while knowing this, that everyone who contends exercises self-control in all things.

But just now as I was saying this, something occurred to me that does not deserve to go unmentioned.  The provisions of worldly soldiers are increased in proportion to their exertions, whereas the spiritual warrior who has less provisions has more honor.  And so, our helmet differs in nature from their corruptible one: theirs is made of copper, whereas ours is made of the hope of salvation.  Their shield is made of wood and hide, but our defense is the shield of faith.  We are protected by a breastplate of righteousness, but they wear chainmail.  And we have the sword of the Spirit for our defense, but they wield a sword of iron.  Thus it is clear that we are not strengthened by the same provisions as they are: the doctrines of piety strengthen us, whereas they need their stomachs filled.

So then, since the temporal cycle has brought us to these days, which we miss as dearly as our nurses from long ago, let us all welcome them with gladness.  The church uses these days to nurture us in piety.  Therefore, you who are about to fast should not look gloomy like the Jews, but beatify yourself in accordance with the gospel, not despondent over the emptiness of your stomach but rather delighting in your soul because of the spiritual joys.  For you know that the desires of the flesh are against the spirit and the desires of the spirit are against the flesh.  So then, since they are opposed to one another, let us diminish the comfort of our flesh and boost the strength of our souls, so that through fasting from the passions we may achieve victory and be rewarded with the crowns of self-control.

4

So then, right now you need to make yourself worthy of the seriousness of fasting, lest you ruin tomorrow’s self-control by today’s drunkenness.  “Since it’s been announced that five days of fasting are coming upon us, today let’s drown ourselves in drink.”  What an evil thought!  What a wicked idea!  No one about to enter into a legitimate marriage with a woman first shacks up with concubines and whores. Nor does a legitimate wife tolerate shacking up with such degenerates.  So likewise, when fasting is on the horizon, your first response should not be to get drunk.  For drunkenness is the universal harlot, the mother of shamelessness, the lover of the absurd, the frenzied woman who is prone to every form of disgracefulness.

Indeed, fasting and prayer have no place in the soul defiled by drunkenness.  The Lord welcomes inside the sacred precincts the one who fasts but refuses admission to someone nursing a hangover as impure and unclean.  After all, if you were to arrive tomorrow reeking of wine and vomit, how could I consider your hangover as fasting?  Don’t offer the excuse: “I’ve not filled my cup with undiluted wine recently!”  Realize that your system is still not cleansed of wine.  Where should I put you?  With the drunks?  Or with those who fast?  A past inebriation still holds one in its grip; a present hunger testifies to fasting.  Your drunkenness makes you the subject of dispute, like an enslaved prisoner of war.  Providing clear evidence of your enslavement, it will not keep you – and rightly so – from smelling like wine, as if it were still in its jug.

The first day of your fast will immediately meet with disapproval because of the lingering effects of your drunkenness.  That the beginning of your fast meets with disapproval and the whole of it is rejected is clear: Drunkards will not inherit the kingdom of God.  If you were to come to fasting drunk, what benefit is it for you?  Indeed if drunkenness excludes you from the kingdom, how can fasting still be useful for you?  Don’t you realize that experts in horse training, when the day of the race is near, use hunger to prime their racehorses?  In contrast you intentionally stuff yourself through self-indulgence, to such an extent that in your gluttony you eclipse even irrational animals.  A heavy stomach is unconducive not only to running but also to sleeping.  Oppressed by an abundance of food, it refuses to keep still and is obliged to toss and turn endlessly.

5

Fasting protects children, chastens the young, makes seniors venerable.  For grey hair is more venerable when it is adorned with fasting.  It is an adornment very well suited for women: it restrains those in their prime, guards the married, nourishes virgins.  Such is how fasting is practiced privately in homes.  But how it is practiced in our public life?  It disposes every city as a whole and all its people to good order, quiets shouting, banishes fighting, silences abuse.  What teacher’s arrival settles down the uproar of boys as abruptly as the advent of fasting quells the tumult of the city?  What reveler carries on when fasting?  What band of lascivious dancers is formed by fasting?  Silly giggling and obscene ditties and erotic dancing abruptly leave the city, banished by fasting as if by a stern judge.

Now if all were to take fasting as the counselor for their actions, nothing would prevent a profound peace from spreading throughout the entire world.  Nations would not rise up against one another nor would armies clash in battle.  If fasting prevailed, weapons would not be wrought, courts of justice would not be erected, people would not live in prisons, nor would there ever be any criminals in the deserts, any slanderers in the cities, or any pirates on the sea.  If all were students of fasting, they would never hear the voice of the taskmaster mentioned in the book of Job.  Nor would our life be so lamentable and sorrowful if fasting were to preside over our life.  For it is clear that it would have taught all people not only to control themselves with regard to food, but also to completely avoid and be utterly estranged from avarice, greed, and every kind of vice.  When these are extirpated, nothing can prevent us from passing our life in profound peace and tranquility of soul.

6

Now those who reject fasting and pursue self-indulgence as if it were the source of life’s happiness have opened the way to that great swarm of vices and destroy their own bodies as well.  Please observe the difference in the faces of those whom you will see tonight and those whom you will see tomorrow.  Tonight their faces will be swollen, flushed, and dripping with beads of sweat; their eyes watery, droopy, and deprived of sharp perception due to an internal cloudiness.  But tomorrow their faces will be serene and stately, restored to their natural color and full of intelligence; their eyes sharp in every perception since no internal cause obscures their natural operation.

Fasting is likeness to the angels, companionship with the righteous, moderation in life.  It made Moses the lawgiver.  Samuel is the fruit of fasting.  Hannah as she fasted vowed to God: O Lord God of Sabaoth, if you were to look upon your maidservant and give me a male child, then I will offer him in your presence as a gift.  He shall drink no wine or strong drink until the day of his death.  The great Samson was reared on fasting, and as long as it was part of that man’s life, his enemies fell by the thousands, the gates of the city were pulled down, and lions did not withstand the strength of his hands.  But when drunkenness and fornication seized him, he was easily captured by his enemies.  And after he was deprived of his eyes, he was set out as a plaything for little Philistine boys.  After Elijah fasted, he shut up Heaven for three years and six months. For when he saw that such great arrogance had been born of self-indulgence, he deemed it necessary to subject them to involuntary fasting with a famine, forcing an end to their sin, which had already increased beyond measure.  It was fasting that, like a kind of cauterization or amputation, halted the rampant spread of vice.

7

Take fasting, O you paupers, as the companion of your home and table; O you servants, as rest from the continual labors of your servitude; O you rich, as the remedy that heals the damage caused by your indulgence and in turn makes what you usually despise more delightful; O you infirm, as the mother of health; O you healthy, as the guardian of your health.  Ask the physicians, and they will tell you that the most perilous state of all is perfect health.  Accordingly experts prescribe going without food to eliminate excessive eating lest the burden of corpulence destroy the body’s strength.  For by prescribing not eating food to eliminate intemperance, they foster a kind of receptivity, re-education, and fresh start for the redevelopment of the nutritive faculty.  Hence one finds the benefit of fasting in every pursuit and in every bodily state, and it is equally suitable for everything: homes, fora, nights, days, cities, deserts.  Therefore, since in so many situations fasting graces us with something that is good in itself, let us undertake it cheerfully, as the Lord said, not looking gloomy like the hypocrites but exhibiting cheerfulness of soul without pretense.

And yet I do not think that I need as great an effort to encourage someone to fast as I do to discourage someone today not to fall into the evil of drunkenness.  For indeed while many undertake fasting because of custom and peer pressure, I dread drunkenness because drunkards cling to it as a kind of paternal inheritance.  Just like those who sail away for a long journey, today some of these idiots buy wine for the five days of fasting.  Who is so idiotic that, even before he starts to drink, he is already out of his mind like a drunk?  Doesn’t he know that the stomach does not keep down what is deposited in it?  It is treacherous to enter into a contract with the stomach!  Being a storehouse that contains many things and yet unguarded, the stomach retains the injury done to it, but does not keep down what is deposited in it.

Avoid having what was just read said to you, if you should arrive drunk tomorrow: I have not chosen this fasting, says the Lord.  Why do you mix what cannot be mixed?  What partnership has fasting with drunkenness?  What communion has intoxication with self-control?  What agreement has the temple of God with idols?  For if the temple of God is where the Spirit of God dwells, then those who permit the filth of licentiousness to enter into themselves through drunkenness are the temple of idols.

Today is the vestibule of fasting.  Doubtless he who has been defiled in the vestibule is not worthy to enter into the sanctuary.  No household servant who wants to regain the favor of his master employs his enemy as his patron and mediator.  Drunkenness is inimical to God, but fasting is the beginning of repentance.  So then, if you wish to return to God through repentance, flee drunkenness lest it render your alienation from him all the more bitter.  Nonetheless, abstinence from food by itself is insufficient for praiseworthy fasting.  Rather, we must fast with an acceptable fasting that is pleasing to God.  True fasting is being a stranger to vice, controlling the tongue, abstaining from anger, distancing oneself from lust, evil speech, lying, perjury.  The absence of these vices makes fasting true, and so shunning these vices makes fasting good.

8

Let us take delight in the Lord by meditating on the utterances of the Spirit and by undertaking the precepts of salvation and all the teachings aimed at the emendation of our souls.  Yet let us be on guard against the interior fast.  The Prophet prays for it to be averted, saying: The Lord will not let the souls of the righteous go hungry.  And: I have not seen the righteous man forsaken or his children begging for bread.  Since he knows that the children of our patriarch Jacob descended into Egypt for bread, he is not speaking about perceptible bread, but rather he is speaking about the spiritual food by which our interior man is perfected.  May the fast with which the Jews were threatened not come upon us: Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, and I will send a famine upon this land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the word of the Lord.  It was for this reason that the Just Judge sent it, because he saw their mind wasting away from a lack of the nourishment that comes from the doctrines of truth, yet their external man was growing enormously fat and obese.

And so, in all the coming days the Holy Spirit will give you a feast at both the morning and evening festivities.  No one should willingly absent themselves from this spiritual banquet.  Let all of us share in the sober cup.  It has been prepared by Wisdom, who hands it to us equally, to the extent that each has the capacity to drink it.  For she has prepared her cup and slaughtered her beasts, that is, the food for the perfect, for those who have their faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.  Filled with such an abundance, may we be found worthy too of the joy experienced in the bridegroom’s chamber, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and might forever and ever.

Amen.

 

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