Lent Disciple-lines #2: Fasting (Annette James)

Themes: Lent

Annette James

“You kept right on loving me and I went on a fast, now I am too thin and your love is too vast…”

Leonard Cohen

Well, I love Leonard Cohen and quote from his work regularly, I know he was not singing about God’s love but it is a good analogy as God’s love is vast - and fasting for a long time will make you thin but fasting is not about Losing weight – I would contend that Fasting is not passive it is an active process.

Have you ever fasted… why did you fast? Any one who has a clinical background will be familiar with the term as fasting has an impact on bodily systems and some investigations on blood or other systems require a person to fast – fasting blood sugar, fasting cholesterol.

Fasting is also a spiritual discipline, like the other spiritual disciplines it is not appropriate to think of fasting on its own. It has been said that fasting without prayer is just hunger – as you fast and pray the fast becomes the prayer.

Jesus fasted 40 days in the wilderness – why, what was that about, what does this mean for me in my Christian journey –

There may be no instruction in the bible to fast but there seems to be an expectation from Jesus that we will…

Matthew 6:16-18 16"When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

The prophets are clear that fasting is not passive, it is active, but it should not cause people to become anxious and stressful. The fasting that God requires from us is to make a difference to reduce inequalities, to bring about a change… There are some people today who have no choice but to fast, in my public health role I learned from families in poverty that some Mothers regularly do not eat in order to feed their children.

Isaiah challenged the people who fasted without prayer and without thought for the inequalities in their society…

Isaiah 58:1-7 1"Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the descendants of Jacob their sins. 2For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. 3'Why have we fasted,' they say, 'and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?' "Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. 4Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. 5Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one's head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? 6"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? 7Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter- when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

John Pritchard (not that one), the Bishop of Oxford in his book ‘Living Jesus’ speaks of the idol of unrestrained consumption and how Jesus came to turn things around, Jesus brought a radical and exciting hope for a new world. We can choose to fast from our choices and actively reduce our consumption. As we begin to control our own behaviour we begin to make a difference. Fasting and prayer can help us to reflect. I fast myself some of the things I have noticed is that over time going without food I stop feeling hungry – when I have fasted for many days I personally find that I am much more fussy over what I will eat. Others present this evening said that they used to fast a couple of times a year for about a week, when they came to break their fast they would eat everything in sight. This tells me that the experience of fasting is different for everyone.

Some other texts that may help as you consider Fasting:

Intervention: 2 Sam 6:12

Repentance: 1 Sam 7:6, Daniel 9:3-5; Joel 2:12-13, Jonah 3;5-9,

Guidance: Acts 14:23, Acts 13:2-4

Worship: Luke 2:37

Strength: Matthew 17:20-21: Ezra 8:23

Mourning: 2 Sam 1:12, Nehemiah 1:4; Psalm 69:10,

Humility: Psalm 35:13-14; 1 Kings 21:25-27; Matthew 6:17-18; Luke 18:9-12

Reminders: Luke 18:1; Phil 4:6-7; Ecclesiastes 3:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:6-18

Whilst fasting is not necessary for salvation, it is an essential part of our Christian walk of faith and is highly recommended.

Fasting can help you have a more intimate relationship with Christ. It can help you as you struggle with sin, or bad habits. Fasting can help open your eyes to things that separate us from God in our lives. Fasting and prayer is a time to separate ourselves from our regular patterns, from things of the world and come closer to God. But not in a passive way not separating ourselves from the world – rather engaging with it in a different way. I believe that we are called to be stewards of our own life and health to enable us to be more effective.

There are many benefits and reasons for fasting and so many ways to do it. Find out the best way for you. Find out the reason for your fasting and how long you plan on doing it for.

Fasting is not about losing weight, it is a discipline and as such can and should be about gaining knowledge and health and well-being..

Research shows fasting can be good for your physical health:

Obesity epidemic – reduction in weight and other benefits

Reduction in blood pressure, cholesterol and an increase in insulin sensitivity

Fasting for more than 2 – 4 days can boost your immune system – Detoxification

However there is a downside – dehydration, headaches, stress, heartburn can be an issue.

As with any other discipline it can be addictive and Fasting can become a crutch, so care needs to be taken. There are some people and situations where we should not Fast – those who are already underweight, pregnant have type one or two diabetes, recovering from surgery, eating disorders, taking waferin, have a fever or has a systemic illness – then you should consult their doctor before attempting a full fast.

It is notable that Fasting is part of the spirituality of all religions. It implies exercising self-control; prayer implies God-centeredness; almsgiving implies neighbour-centeredness, expressed by loving service. Self-denial is good for both the soul and body because it develops self-control and self-discipline. Human growth and maturity demand self-discipline.

St Paul often likens himself to an Athlete running a race. Athletes who compete in sports know the need for self-discipline and intensive training for both mind and body. Paul says that “athletes deny themselves all sorts of things. They do this to win a crown of leaves that wither. But we, a crown that is imperishable.” (1 Cor. 9-25) Live moderately; control your tongue, speech and appetite. Lent also calls us to be aware of the needs of others, to cultivate virtues like kindness and compassion. Avoid harsh and unkind judgments. Being sensitive to each other, especially those in adverse or challenging circumstances. Practice ‘random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty’, be generous, smile, be open-minded and accepting of differences.

The Prophet Isaiah reminds us that fasting includes freeing others from their burdens, sharing what we have with others, caring for the oppressed, and not turning your back on people who need us. When we live in this way: “Your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wounds shall quickly be healed.” (Is. 58:8)

I challenge you today to consider giving up something that you desire – to fast. Not to brag and appear spiritual, make sure your motives are right and do it for the glory of God. Humble yourself before the Lord and commit to God afresh.

Fasting and the Eucharist

In the early Church and, to a lesser extent still today, there were two fasts. There was the "total fast" that preceded all major feasts or sacramental events. The ancient name for this fast was "statio" from the verb "sto, stare" to stand watch, on guard or in vigil. The second fast was a fast of abstinence from certain foods, e.g., meats or fats. This was more an act of self-discipline and self-control. The statio fast was total and a means of watching and waiting…i.e. for something. The fast of abstinence was more general and personal, to help oneself be more disciplined or self-controlled. The total fast is still kept today prior to reception of Holy Communion. Following Holy Communion, the total fast ceases because Jesus had explicitly stated that we don't fast when the bridegroom is here, in other words, what we're keeping vigil for has arrived, the wait is over. On the other hand, the fast of abstinence was allowed on Sundays because the continuity of abstinence can be important for it to be effective.

These initial observations, then, teach us that the Eucharist is always the end of a preparation. It is always the fulfillment of an expectation. In the Orthodox Church during Lent, they have Eucharist only on Saturday and Sunday. But because Wednesdays and Fridays are total fast days, those two days are also days for the Communion service (Liturgy of the PreSanctified) which are held in the evening, i.e., after the day of preparation. Fasting is always preparatory.

Adam and Christ…

Christian fasting is revealed in synthesis between two events: the "breaking of the fast" by Adam and Eve; and the "keeping of the fast" by Christ at the beginning of his ministry.

Humanity's "Fall" away from God and into sin began with eating. God had proclaimed a fast from the fruit of only one tree, the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17), and Adam and Eve broke it. Fasting is here connected with the very mystery of life and death, of salvation and damnation. When Jesus came he feasted and shared food and this was a way of building relationships and aligning with the structure and culture of the time but in a new way.

In lent we have an opportunity to consider fasting as we usually start the season by reading "When He had fasted 40 days and 40 nights, He became hungry." Hunger is that state in which we realize our dependence on something else—when we face the ultimate question: "on what does my life depend?" Satan tempted both Adam and Christ, saying: Eat, for your hunger is proof that you depend entirely on food, that your life is in food. Adam believed and ate. Christ said, "Man does NOT live by bread alone." (Mt. 4:4; Lk. 4:4).

Christian tradition can name at least seven reasons for fasting:

  1. From the beginning, God commanded some fasting, in a sense the separation from God, the secretiveness and discord – entered into the world because Adam and Eve broke the fast.
  2. For those seeking a relationship with Christ, fasting is ultimately about fasting from sin from those things that get in the way of outworking our relationship with God.
  3. Fasting reveals our dependence on God and not the resources of this world.
  4. Fasting is an ancient way of preparing for the Eucharist—the truest of foods.
  5. Fasting is preparation for baptism (and all the sacraments)—for the reception of grace.
  6. Fasting is a means of saving and enabling a sharing of resources and can enable us to work towards justice and fairness in a new way.
  7. Fasting is a means of self-discipline, chastity, and the restraining of the appetites.

These were accessed on the internet, drawn from the writings of Alexander Schmemann, "Notes in Liturgical Theology," St. Vladimir's Seminary Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 1, Winter 1959, pp. 2-9. Rev. Daniel Merz is a former Associate Director of the USCCB Divine Worship office.

Fasting in History: From the first to the third century, fasting keynoted Lent. Originally, the fast was very strict. Only one meal a day toward evening was allowed. From the fourth until the ninth century, the Church extended the fast to 40 days. This fast was called quadragesima, the Latin word meaning 40.

From the ninth until the 15th century, the Church permitted a gradual relaxation of the strict rules about fasting from food and drink. The practice of fasting from food and drink gradually shifted to abstaining from evil deeds, increasing good works and focusing on personal spiritual renewal. This trend brought greater emphasis on other forms of penitential works such as self-control, deeper prayer, works of compassion, service and almsgiving. Lenten practices evolved from “what am I doing for myself” to “what am I doing for my neighbour.” In the 20th century, the tradition of fasting was reduced to only two days in Lent: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fasting becomes prayer and…

Prayer, has great power. Prayer brings God’s grace which is an enabler as Jesus showed us in the desert, in the wilderness, prayer can enable us to resist evil and to do good. Take a few minutes of quiet time each day during Lent to fast from the busy-ness of life to get in touch with the Spirit of God present at the core of our being.

Reference: Pritchard John. Living Jesus. SPCK 2010