The first half of this sermon (before I speak to the children) is taken directly from the teaching of St. John Chrysostom and concerns fasting, for it is today, the Sunday of Cheesefare, immediately before the Great Fast of Lent that we become keenly aware of the need to understand the true purpose of fasting according to the holy Gospel. This is what this great Father says about fasting.
“Fasting is a medicine. But medicine, as beneficial as it is, becomes useless because of the inexperience of the user. He has to know the appropriate time that the medicine should be taken and the right amount of medicine and the condition of the body which is to take it, the weather conditions and the season of the year and the appropriate diet of the sick and many other things. If any of these things are overlooked, the medicine will do more harm than good. So, if one who is going to heal the body needs so much accuracy, when we care for the soul and are concerned about healing it from bad thoughts, it is necessary to examine and observe everything with every possible detail.
Fasting is the change of every part of our life, because the sacrifice of the fast is not the abstinence but the distancing from sins. Therefore, whoever limits the fast to the deprivation of food, he is the one who, in reality, abhors and ridicules the fast. Are you fasting? Show me your fast with your works. Which works? If you see someone who is poor, show him mercy. If you see an enemy, reconcile with him. If you see a friend who is becoming successful, do not be jealous of him! If you see a beautiful woman on the street, pass her by.
In other words, not only should the mouth fast, but the eyes and the legs and the arms and all the other parts of the body should fast as well. Let the hands fast, remaining clean from stealing and greediness. Let the legs fast, avoiding roads which lead to sinful sights. Let the eyes fast by not fixing themselves on beautiful faces and by not observing the beauty of others. You are not eating meat, are you? You should not eat debauchery with your eyes either. Let your hearing also fast. The fast of hearing is to refuse bad talk against others and sly defamations.
Let the mouth fast from disgraceful and abusive words, because, what gain is there when, on the one hand we avoid eating chicken and fish and, on the other, we chew-up and consume our brothers? He who condemns and blasphemes is as if he has eaten brotherly meat, as if he has bitten into the flesh of his fellow man. It is because of this that Paul warns us, saying: “If you chew up and consume one another be careful that you do not destroy yourselves.” You may not have pressed your teeth into the flesh (of your neighbour) but you may have lodged bad talk in his soul, wounding it by spreading dishonour, causing incalculable damage both to yourself, to him, and to many others.
If you cannot go without eating all day because of an ailment of the body, beloved one, no reasonable man will be able to criticise you for that. Besides, we have a Lord who is meek and loving and who does not ask for anything beyond our power. Because He neither requires abstinence from foods, neither the fast that takes place simply for the sake of fasting, neither is it His aim that we remain with empty stomachs, but rather we should fast to offer our entire selves to the dedication of spiritual things, having distanced ourselves from secular things. If we regulated our life with a sober mind and directed all of our interest toward spiritual things, and if we ate as much as we needed to satisfy our necessary needs and offered our entire lives to good works, we would not have any need of the help rendered by the fast. But because human nature is indifferent and gives itself over mostly to comforts and gratifications, for this reason our man-loving Lord, like a loving and caring father, devised the therapy of the fast for us, so that our gratifications would be completely stopped and our worldly cares transferred to spiritual works. So, if there are some who have gathered here and are hindered by bodily ailments and cannot remain without food, I advise them to seek healing for the physical ailment and not to deprive themselves from this spiritual teaching, but to care for it even more.
Ways exist, more important than abstinence from food, which can boldly open the gates to God. He, therefore, who eats and cannot fast, let him display richer almsgiving, let him pray more, let him have a more intense desire to hear divine words. In these things, our bodily illness is not a hindrance. Let him become reconciled with his enemies, let him distance from his soul every resentment. If he wants to accomplish these things, then he has completed the true fast, which is what the Lord asks of us more than anything else.”