Basil the Great. On Fasting and Feasting. Yonkers, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2013.
This is not the name of a book Basil wrote. It is a collection of sermons delivered on various feast days. It is nothing like a systematic treatise on fasting, but it can be a good spur for the Christian life. We really don’t know how to feast because we don’t know how to fast. We consider McDonald’s to be a good meal.
Birth of Christ
This sermon establishes the pattern that as Christ’s flesh participates in divinity, so our own flesh must be prepared. The incarnation is the foundation for fasting. Basil repeats the standard line that the mode of eternal generation is ineffable (Basil 27). The closest analogy is fire to iron. He does seem to anticipate something like the extra-calvinisticum when he notes “Heaven was not deprived of what it contained, and the earth received the heavenly one within its own embraces” (30). As Christ’s flesh shares in divinity, “it does not impart its own weaknesses to the divinity.”
The body of the Holy Virgin is “the workshop for this divine economy.” Nice turn of phrase.
Any time is an acceptable time for baptism (41). Basil uses the language of baptism saving. We shouldn’t try to weaken that. What we should not miss, however, is that baptism allows us to participate in redemptive history.
We also see hints of a baptismal service in the ancient church: “You may find yourself (as unbaptized) able neither to lift your hands to heaven, stand upright, give proper bodily worship for the ritual, learn properly, confess clearly, join with God, nor renounce the devil” (49).
Learn good habits: “prayer as a night-watchman, fasting as the servant at the door, psalmody as your soul-guide” (52).
First Homily on Fasting
True fasting should loose the bonds of iniquity (injustice). One of the reasons we shouldn’t look sad during a fast is because we shouldn’t “look gloomy while [we] are being healed” (55). Fasting, when done properly, can kill (or at least expose) the root of a sin in the soul. Basil takes the command to “anoint your head” as a reference to the chrismic mysteries and oil. This allows us, he suggests, to “share in Christ” (56).
In terms of physical and temporal health, Basil notes that “eating lightly” is healthier for the body (57), Of course, they would have been eating actual food and not today’s food-like products.
The saints received fasting as a paternal inheritance.
Basil gives Noah the benefit of the doubt on the wine incident. Noah didn’t know how to partake moderately. Developing this point, fasting allows us to view food (and wine) properly. To the degree that we moderns do fast, we break our fast, not by small amounts of lean meat and a little wine, but by McDonalds.
“Fasting begets prophets and strengthens mighty men” (61). It is quite simply a training regimen.
A man who truly fasts will not lend money at interest (64).
A man who does not heed “the life-giving doctrines will have his mind waste away” (67).
Passions disturb the mind, but fasting weakens the passions.
Second Homily on Fasting
Thesis: “The more you deny the flesh, the more you render your soul radiant” (73-74).
The church uses the feast days to train the body to rhythms of fasting and feasting. These rhythms keep the soul ready to fight spiritual warfare. Indeed, “going without food to eliminate intemperance, they foster a kind of receptivity, re-education, and fresh start of the redevelopment of the nutritive faculty [perhaps we don’t need to adopt this aspect of ancient medicine]” (79).
There are aspects of Basil’s counsel that we probably couldn’t adopt today: church feast calendar, etc. Much of what he says, though, is worth considering and neatly unites both body and soul.