The season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and treks the next forty days to the climax of Easter Sunday. Associated with this time are spiritual disciplines such as fasting. True fasting does not abstain from food just to get noticed by God, but has as its purpose a generous spirit and a giving heart. Both abstinence and generosity are necessary in the practice of fasting (Isaiah 58).
Fasting is such a neglected spiritual practice today that we need to make sense of the reason to do without food for a set amount of time. Fasting ought to put us in touch with our vulnerability and should remind us of our mortality and our frailties. Through fasting we remember that if we are not fed we will die. Standing before God hungry, we realize we are dependent and desperate before him. We discern through fasting that we are actually poor, called to be rich in a way that the world does not understand. We are empty, called to be filled with the fullness of God. We are physically hungry, called to taste all the goodness that can be ours in Christ as we get in touch with a hunger for God.
But fasting does not end with only abstinence from food. In other words, fasting is not just a private individual thing, but is meant to open our eyes and our hearts to the truly needy among us and in the world. We are to be open to both the spiritual needs of people, and their very real material needs. In addressing the spiritual needs of people, St. Jerome said in the 4th century concerning fasting that “When you see people freezing outside in the frigidity of unbelief, without the warmth of faith, impoverished and homeless, lead them home to the church and clothe them with the work of incorruption, so that, wrapped in the mantle of Christ, they will not remain in the grave.”
True fasting, however, addresses not just the spiritual but the quite real daily physical needs of people for the basic necessities of life. Fasting abstains from food in order to provide. For example, fasting and prayer can go together so that we stop eating in order to take that time to pray; giving up a meal can be done in order to put the food that would have been eaten into the pantry for the needy; fasting from lunch at our jobs can be done not just to get more work done but so that we might share both our food and our friendship with those in need.
There are intimate connections between worship, fasting, justice, and reconciliation. We cannot separate these out as if they do not relate to one another. All of this is really designed for us to get back in touch with the real meaning of repentance, which is what the season of Lent is all about. To repair a broken relationship with God or with another person; to grieve over the state of a certain situation; to devote oneself to service are just some ways that fasting leads to repentance which leads to new life.
It is a good idea to use this season to deal honestly with our own complicity in the sins of our world, our nation, our church, and our families. The worship that God desires is inescapably corporate as well as compellingly personal. To ensure that all people around us flourish as human beings is not merely an obligation but is necessary to our collective fulfillment as God’s people.
The result of true fasting is repentance from sin that has the fruit of renewal and restoration because fasting connects us to God so that we seek to repair and rebuild what has been torn down.
We fast during Lent in order to practice repentance, attach ourselves to God, and become more generous toward others. For most of the history of the church Christians were expected to observe regular fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays every week year round. When the season of Lent came the church was united in their commitment to use the forty days as a time of introspection, confession, and fasting in order to prepare for the miracle of forgiveness on Good Friday and its life-giving power on Easter. It was understood to be a time to respond to sin, to be purged of bad desires, to yearn for forgiveness, and to develop godly habits of living.
When the Reformation came, no one feared the danger of empty ritual more than the Reformers, especially Luther. Yet, they were still all agreed that fasting ought to be an outward Christian discipline practiced at regular intervals. As for me, I think the least I could do is fast two meals a week – one on Wednesday and one on Friday, to not only be in solidarity with the faithful that have gone before us, but in order to let the season of Lent do what it was intended to do.
I would encourage us all to consider implementing some sort of regular fast through Lent, if for no other reason, to fulfill the spirit and intent of biblical fasting. Let us, through fasting, connect deeply with Christ in these next forty days of purposeful Christian living.