Why do we fast? So that we may be saved. Such an answer no doubt scandalizes Christians belonging to certain confessions, but it is indeed a truth that is overlooked in our contemporary culture so often that it is no wonder that indulgence and a subsequent addiction to constant satiety are hallmarks of said culture. In saying that we fast so that we may be saved, however, it is important to understand what is being said, as well as what is not being said.
I do not mean to say here that we fast so that fasting itself may save us, or that we, by fasting, may come to merit salvation. God saves. The Father, through a gracious act of His Son and by the power of His (the Father's) Holy Spirit, draws us to Himself and causes us men made of scorched earth to bloom once again with the blossoms of His eternal light.
Several different events as of late have caused me to think about these things. A very dear friend of mine who is an Evangelical Protestant asked me recently if the Orthodox ever "do evangelism." After outlining his "M.O.," so to speak (he was clear that this was a simple theme that could and should be varied through careful evaluation of the individual one was --hopefully--listening to), he then asked what we would say if someone, like the Philippian jailer, asked us what he must do to be saved. A couple of recent podcasts on AFR -- namely this one and this one -- confirmed what I'd mostly been thinking: if one were to ask me what they had to do to be saved, I would start off by telling them (first of all) that Life Itself (Himself, really) awaits, and that It (He) seeks to turn us back from eventual oblivion. What we must do is love His Light rather than our darkness, His Life rather than our death.
This is no easy task, for as one author puts it, we encounter this love and engage it "in fits and starts." Yet engage His unmoving Life and Love we must, for from that one living, loving presence we will eventually experience either everlasting punishment or times of refreshment that go from glory to glory, ever more radiant.
Great Lent is a time to remember that God is not the factor to be determined in our salvation; in one sense we're all already saved. The factor is our response to God. We encounter God's sovereign rule over Creation enacted not by any actual action He must take over it, but by His very, unmoving being over it. The psalmist reminds us that Creation is dismayed when He hides His face, dead and dust when He takes away our breath. When He "send[s] His Spirit, we are created, and He renews the face of the earth."
The introductory hymn of Great Lent is a petition: "Turn not Thy Face away from Thy child, for I am afflicted; hear me speedily; draw near unto my soul and deliver it." Here we hear the human soul's ultimate cry: we thirst for Him in a land barren, and untrodden, and unwatered; though we speak of Him as "turning His face away" and "drawing near," these obvious anthropomorphisms fall short of He who is everywhere present and filling all things. It is we who must needs open ourselves to His gracious presence and, in so doing, find salvation.
This salvation, more than simply a dealing with a checklist of transgressions our Creator has against us, is moreover a renewal of life and a reversal of the ancestral curse -- a curse which leads to an endgame of a perverse hesychasm whose silence and stillness is that of isolated torment and not of communal illumination.
Father Stephen Freeman stated the following (source):
The “Great Crisis,” if I can coin a term, is the threat of non-existence, or relative non-existence. Classical Orthodoxy, following St. Athanasius does not threaten humanity with pure non-existence, but with a dynamic movement towards a “relative” non-existence.So, then, the question remains...how? Well, a checklist could be made: catechism, baptism, chrismation, communion, prayer, confession, fasting, almsgiving...the last four of which we Orthodox Christians need to commit ourselves again to come this season, but there is still a sense in which that story -- that something is fundamentally wrong, not only with me, but with the cosmos, and that it was not always this way, and that it really should be some other, better way, and that somehow we all dream that Someone should and will come along and make all crooked paths straight -- needs to be accepted before anything could progress in this hypothetical dialogue. If one is convinced that this is the best of all worlds -- or that, if it is not, then I am surely not a direct part of its not being so -- then all else is wasted breath.
The Great Crisis is therefore not at all the same thing as an impending punishment from an angry God. This is not our fate. Rather it is the continued living in increasing modes of non-existence as we refuse to live in communion with the Only True God Who is the Lord and Giver of Life.
Because this is true, every work of our salvation begins in communion with God, continues in communion with God, and is fulfilled in communion with God. Thus our lives can never be defined extrinsically (from the outside), but only mystically and existentially.
The Great Crisis is answered in Pascha (the fullness of Christ’s resurrection) and has never been answered in any other manner.
This quote from Father Stephen, to close (source):
It is as though at death our bodies have a wisdom we have lacked for most of our lives. It knows that what it needs is not food - but something deeper. The soul seeks and hungers for the living God. The body and its pain become a distraction. And thus in God’s mercy the distraction is reduced.
Christianity as a religion - as a theoretical system of explanations regarding heaven and hell, reward and punishment, is simply Christianity that has been distorted from its true form. Either we know the living God or we have nothing. Either we eat His flesh and drink His blood or we have no life in us. The rejection of Hesychasm is the source of all heresy.
Why do we fast? We fast so that we may live like a dying man - and in dying we can be born to eternal life.