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On Fasting, by Hesychios of Jerusalem

Updated: Apr 11

As we enter the first week of the holy Forty Days of the fast, the Pappas Patristic Institute offers this original translation of the homily On Fasting by Hesychios of Jerusalem. It is, to our knowledge, the first time this text has appeared in English.

(You can download the translation as a PDF here.)


Hesychios of Jerusalem was a fifth-century presbyter and exegete known especially for his prolific commentaries on Scripture. Distinct from the Hesychios (of Sinai) who appears in the Philokalia, this much earlier Hesychios is said to have commented on every book of the Bible, and indeed his interpretations of Scripture have proven to be extensive. As someone who lived during the period of the Third Ecumenical Council (Ephesus 431), Hesychios opposed Nestorios, and his description of Theodore of Mopsuestia (from a lost History of the Church) is enshrined in the acts of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople 553). His sermons, of which the text below is number 15, include the earliest extant homily on the Meeting of the Lord, a feast that originated in Jerusalem.



 

ON FASTING

Hesychios of Jerusalem[1]


Godly fasting, when undertaken with reverence, holy prayers, and almsgiving, is the root and foundation of piety. For God does not desire abstinence from bread and water, but abstinence from wicked deeds. Because it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man, but what proceeds out of his mouth—these are the things that defile a man (Mt 15:11). Let us therefore keep a fast, beloved, that befits God, concerning which the Lord said, But you, when you fast, anoint your head, that is, through good works and almsgiving; and wash your face, that is, by removing every stain of sin (Mt 6:17).


There is blameworthy fasting, and there is praiseworthy fasting. Many, even though they fast, commit murders; and many, even though they fast, consume and devour others. The Ninevites fasted and were saved, and by fasting they changed the wrath of God. And their fasting put an end to the judgment that had been decreed against them. For the prophet said, Yet three days and Nineveh will be overthrown (Jonah 3:4). He did not say, “After three days and Nineveh will be destroyed.” If he had said “after three days,” it would have been destroyed. But yet three days indicates that “I will suffer you for this amount of time without repentance. I suffer you for three days yet, and, if you do not repent in these three days, then the city will be destroyed.” And they would not have repented in this amount of time if not ‘through the three days,’ that is through the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


On the other hand, the Jews fasted and took counsel that they might kill the apostle Paul (Acts 23:12). Jezebel declared a fast and killed Naboth and took the vineyard of the poor man (4 Kg 20:9-16 LXX). Fasting with murder—what kind of fast is this!


Daniel fasted when he was thrown into the lion’s den. When he was thrown into the pit, he cried to Christ, saying, Out of the depths I have cried to you, O Lord. O Lord, hear my prayer (Ps 129:2, 142:1; cf. Dan. 9:17). And when he saw the lions on his right and on his left, he cried out again, saying, Deliver not to the beasts the soul that confesses you (Ps 73:19). But he saw that the Lord does not abandon those who hope in him. The earthly king had sealed the pit, but the Heavenly King sealed the mouths of the lions.


The fire in the furnace fasted and did not consume the servants of God as food. Rather, it leapt out of the furnace in its fasting and left off the three youths for the sake of the fourth (Dan 3:22-26, 3b:24-27 LXX).


The whale in the sea fasted when it received Jonah in the inner storehouses of its belly. Containing the prophet as a kind of deposited treasure, it showed forth the sign of fasting.[2] For it took the place of a ship for the one who had been shipwrecked and conveyed the foreigner through the sea, through the deep, and through great fear, and, so as not to destroy the foreigner in the inner storehouses of its belly, restored the deposit safe and sound, handing it over to the Master who made the deposit (Jonah 2:1-11).[3]



David fasted, and through fasting and repentance, God forgave him the sin of taking the wife of Uriah (2 Kg 12:16).


Elijah fasted for forty days and received the keys of the heavens, so that, when he should desire it, he might command the rain and, when he should desire it, he might bring it forth through fasting and prayer (3 Kg 19:8).


Our Savior, who committed no sin and in whose mouth was found no guile (1 Pt 2:22), fasted for forty days and put the devil to shame (Mt 4:1-11). But he fasted in order to provide us with a model, that through fasting we might be empowered to attain the propitiation of sins.


Let us, therefore, keep a pure fast, beloved, concerning which the apostle James said, This is pure worship, to visit brethren in their affliction, and to keep yourselves undefiled from the world (Jas 1:27).


Joshua the son of Nun fasted and commanded the sun and the moon (Joshua 10:12-12).


The apostles, who possessed nothing upon the earth, received authority to bind and loose and to fulfill in themselves the saying, As having nothing and yet possessing all things (2 Cor 6:10). Thus it says that Peter and John went up into the temple at the ninth hour to pray. And a certain man who was lame from his mother’s womb, and who never moved, was sitting there. This man hoped to receive something from the apostles. But Peter responded to him, saying,


What you hope to receive I do not have. But what you do not hope to receive, I do have. You hope to receive silver; I give you your health. Because bodily health is greater than all the money in the world. I will confess to you the truth: Silver and gold I do not have. Because Christ taught us, saying, “Do not acquire gold, silver, or bronze." Rather, he gave us power, saying, Expel demons, heal the sick, cleanse lepers. Freely you have received, freely give (Mt 10:8). In the name of Jesus Christ, arise and walk.


And taking him by the right hand, he raised him (Acts 3:1-7). The servant raises with his hands; the Master heals with a word. For the servant is not above his Lord (Mt 10:24).


This is why, even though there are many places throughout the world where people are healed, today I see a single physician, Christ, standing in all of them. O what a novel wonder! A variety of afflictions, in a variety of places where healing takes place, are cured by a single physician. Here approaches one who is afflicted with the wound of sin, and by fasting he departs wearing the plaster of healing. There another stinks with the putrefaction of fornication, and through fasting he receives the medicine to cure the stench from Christ, the physician of our souls and bodies. Yet another, burning with the fire of avarice, acquires the herb that by fasting will relieve the disease.


Fasting has the ability to make even those who are sterile pregnant on short notice, to change an infertile womb into fecund soil, and to give children who are prophets as a reward for abstinence. For what is it that we have been taught by divine scripture? And Anna was despondent, it says, and she wept and would not eat (1 Kg 1:7). Yet fasting gave the sterile woman the prophet Samuel. Do you see the rewards of fasting? Do you see the kinds of fruits it produces for those who make use of it? How it dries up the wellsprings of fornication and instead opens up wombs withered by sterility? How it prunes the thorns of sin planted by thoughts (logismoi) and never brings forth the fruits of impiety? Yet godly fasting is not only able to accomplish all these things; it also has the ability to make gentle those who are cruel and to draw compassion from those who lack it, softening the harshness of the stubborn as in a forge.



Fasting is not only most useful for sinners, but is also advantageous, in certain moments, for the righteous, as we have shown above. By fasting for forty days and forty nights, Moses entered into the cloud (Ex 34:28) and saw God as no one had ever seen him. God himself bears witness concerning this, saying, If there should arise among you a prophet to the Lord, I will be known by him in a vision, and I will speak to him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses: mouth to mouth I will speak with him, and face to face, as if one should speak to his friend (Num 12:6-8, Ex 33:11). This unique vision was afforded to the prophet by fasting, and the face of the one who fasted was changed into a kind of divine lightning-flash of the unapproachable Light; and it gave to the prophet tablets inscribed by the finger of God (Ex 34:1-30).


Let us therefore approach fasting with a radiant face. Let us greet it with gladness in our souls. And let us not so much abstain from foods as refrain from sins. Let us not appear humble on the outside to men while being shown to be arrogant in our souls to the Master. Let us not give to the poor while acting rapacious with others. And let us not flatter God with words while destroying our brethren with our deeds. Let us always keep in mind the words of the Apostle: Seek peace with all, and sanctification, without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14). Rather, keeping a fast from both foods and from all evil things, let us say to God: You have mercy on all, for you can do all things; and you overlook the sins of men that they might repent (Wis 11:23). For to you is due all glory, to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.


(Download this homily as a PDF here.)

 

[1] Hesychios the Presbyter, Homily 15 (ed. M. Aubineau, Les homélies festales d'Hésychius de Jérusalem 1: Les homélies i-xv, Subsidia hagiographica 59 [Brussels: Société des Bollandistes, 1978], 583-592).

[2] Compare the following line from the hymnography for Forgiveness Vespers, which opens the period of Lent: “Let us take up the weapons of light, that having sailed the great sea of the Fast, we may arrive at the Resurrection on the third day” (Aposticha for Monday of the first week, Triodion).


[3] God had commanded (προσέταξε) the whale both to swallow Jonah and to spit him out.

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