"Not such a fast I have chosen, says the Lord, but loose all bonds of iniquity, separate knots of violent covenants, send forth the shattered in release and all wicked contracts tear asunder."--Is 58:6
When we fast, we are not to merely refrain from food, though it is praiseworthy to do so to control our passions and offer our sacrifices to God; we are also to do good to our neighbor, as the Spirit spoke through the prophet Isaiah. We are to fast from wickedness and fast for good, for the more exact fast, the true fast, is to abstain from sin, as St. John Chrysostom remind us, and while we abstain from sin we should also actively do good; thus the Lord directs us to do good for our neighbor during our fasts, expanding the normal definition of almsgiving, calling us to all of the corporal works of mercy. Yet, are there not other ways we can assist our neighbor during the Fast, in addition to the physical assistance? If we do not have a brother bound in wicked contract, if we do not keep men bound by iniquity, and thus we cannot release them, what can this verse mean to us?
We can live this call by intercession, by prayer for our brother. For by prayer we can fight against the wickedness that oppresses our brother: "Prayer is warfare to the last breath" (Evagrios Pontikos). By our prayers, then, we can loose our neighbors from their bonds and chains, their violent covenants and wicked contracts. In particular, we can release them from those bonds to sin, those covenants with the devil, those chains of the passions. Our prayers can assist in leading them from darkness into light. Of course, none of this is our doing alone: it is the work of the Lord with Whom we cooperate, with Whom we are in synergy. There is, after all, only one mediator between God and man, Christ Jesus our Savior. Yet we can join our prayers with Him to heal our neighbor. Is this not how monks love their neighbors, in prayer? Then we, too, can be like monks in assisting our neighbors.
We are not alone in our assistance, for the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, with all the saints, are praying for us and for our brothers as well. Let us then join our prayers with those of her who has great power for freeing, she who is the fiery throne of the Pantokrator. She is the dispeller of darkness, the terror of the demons of gloom, the one who shattered the locks of Hades. She, the strength and fortress of mankind, intercedes for us at all times, and we are glad, "for a mother's prayer is a powerful means of obtaining the Master's favor." We implore her to beg the Lord to deliver from every snare we who have recourse to her, and to deliver all her children, all people. Through her, "the dumb are made eloquent, the lepers whole; sicknesses are driven away, and the multitude of evil spirits that roman around the world are vanquished." She is the wound ever-hurting to the demons, and she is their downfall; she is the one who quenched the flame of error, who ripped the Athenians' meshes, who dispelled the flames of passion, who retrieved many from the abyss of ignorance, who stopped the corrupter of minds, who restored those born in shame, who gave sense to the senseless. And yet all of this, her invincible power in liberating us from terror, is all due to the One she gave birth to, the One who deigned to grant her such power; for she bore the Guide of lost and the captives' Release. It is only through her Son that she has such power and honor, and so we must also thank her Son for every gift that flows from her, for they all originate in Him.
The Deesis, a traditional icon of the Theotokos and the Forerunner praying to Christ
With the Theotokos, we can ask the saints, too, to intercede in this joyous work of liberation. Thus the all-glorious apostles, the bodiless powers of Heaven, the honorable Forerunner and Baptist John, the martyrs, confessors, ascetics, hierarchs, preachers, teachers, merciful ones, and all those brought to perfection in faith can intercede with us. All of us can then intercede for all, for the living and the dead, for Judas Maccabeus "made atonement for the dead, doing so from sin to deliver them."
Thus one of the greatest services we can lend to our neighbors is to intercede with them, along with all the saints and the Theotokos, that they may be delivered from the bonds and chains of iniquity and be brought to the freedom of the Spirit. Let us join this with our fasting, for by prayer and fasting combined can demons by driven out. This prayer is something all can do: if all cannot fast, if all cannot give corporal aid to their neighbors, all can still pray, and in this way "it is possible for one who is not fasting to fast" (St. John Chrysostom). And let us never think our prayer is worthless, for prayers effects are great. As Dr. Peter Kreeft once wrote, "I strongly suspect that if we saw all the difference even the tiniest of our prayers to God make, and all the people those little prayers were destined to affect, and all the consequences of those effects down through the centuries, we would be so paralyzed with awe at the power of prayer that we would be unable to get up off our knees for the rest of our lives." Let us strive, in our prayers and in all our actions, to be of one mind with Elder Amphilochios of Patmos, who said, "My children, I don't want Paradise without you." Let us at all times, then, and especially during times of fasting (since "fasting sends prayers up to Heaven, as if it were its wings for the upward journey," as St. Basil says), pray to the Lord, joining our prayers with all the saints, that all men and women, all of our neighbors, all of our brothers and sisters, may be freed from enslavement to iniquity and enter the glorious freedom of Christ, Who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Elder Amphilochios of Patmos
Nota Bene: The references to St. John Chrysostom are to a passage in his Baptismal Instructions V.1: "Beloved, even if the fasting is over, let the piety remain. Even if the time of the holy quarantine has gone by, let us not put aside the memory of it. Let no one feel displeasure as this exhortation; for I do not say it to impose on you another period of fasting, but because I wish you both to relax and to display now a more exact kind of fasting—but the true one. For it is possible for one who is not fasting to fast. How is this? I shall tell you. While on the one hand we are taking food, let us, on the other, abstain from sin. For this is the fasting which helps us, and it is with this fasting in view that we abstain from food, so that we may more easily run in the course of virtue. Therefore, if we wish both to take proper care of the body and to keep the soul free from sin, let us take heed and act accordingly." This passage is from the translation by Paul W. Harkins, volume 31 in the Ancient Christian Writers series (Westminister, MD: The Newman Press, 1963). The quote from Evagrios Pontikos is a paraphrase. The section on the Theotokos is derived from the Akathist written by St. Romanos the Melodist, particularly as found in the Melkite Eparchy of Newton's Publicans Prayer Book (Boston, MA: Sophia Press, 2008). The quote about "a mother's prayer is a powerful means" is taken from the Sixth Hour of the Lenten Little Hours, as found in the Melkite Eparchy of Newton's Horologion, Second Edition (Boston, MA: Sophia Press, 2009). I have been unable to find the original source of the Dr. Kreeft quote, though it was taken from The Integrated Catholic Life. The quote from Elder Amphilochios is found in Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit: The Lives and Counsels of the Contemporary Elders of Greece, translated and edited by Herman A. Middleton (Protecting Veil, 2011). The quote from St. Basil is from his First Homily on Fasting (Homily 1), §7, as found in On Fasting and Feasts, translated by Susan R. Holman and Mark DelColgiano, volume 50 in the Popular Patristics Series (Yonkeres, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2013).