When Jesus talks about prayer, fasting and alms-giving he assumes we are already doing those spiritual practices. He says “WHEN you pray… WHEN you fast… WHEN you give alms…”
We’ve spent a lot of time on the topic of prayer this year, and we will be spending some time on alms, stewardship and tithing. For now, as we start our Lenten journey for 2019, I’d like to take our thoughts to fasting. Fasting is generally the abstinence from food; or to eat sparingly for a religious observance or a health practice. Buddhists fast during the full moon and other holy days. Hindus fast during the new moon and other festivals. These ancient eastern religions practice fasting to enhance concentration, as a way of purification and freeing the mind. The western religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all encourage fasting. Jews fast as a way to atone for sins (to make themselves at-one with God) and to strengthen their prayers. Some Muslims fast one day a week, in the footsteps of Muhammad; most all fast the entire month of Ramadan (usually around May and June). Christians have practiced fasting from the very beginning, with Catholics and Orthodox observing various fasts even today.
The purpose of Christian fasting is never really explained in the Bible, but in the Old Testament it abounds in connection to penance, mourning, preparation, purifying and requesting response for prayers. Scripture suggests fasting is a difficult self-denial that opens our hearts to God and to the spiritual realm. It deepens our awareness of spiritual things because we are denying ourselves some of the material things. Many of the greatest biblical characters fasted: Moses, David, Isaiah, Elijah, Daniel, Joel, Nehemiah, John, Paul, Barnabas… and many others. Jesus and his apostles fasted.
I always wondered why the willful resistance of food or drink is called FASTING, a FAST. I would think it slows us down. Shouldn’t it be called PONDEROUS or LABOURED or even DIET? The English word FAST comes from the Old English FÆSTAN which meant to make something firm; to establish, strengthen or fasten something. That Old English word comes from the Old High German word FASTEN. The original meaning in ancient Germanic was to hold something firmly and came to mean having firm control of oneself. So to fast is to have control over our will in order to firm up our own resolve.
Fasting should be much more deliberate than giving up sweets or caffeine simply to show “I can do it!” The purpose of fasting could be said to be all about priorities. Yes, I really enjoy food and drink (and sort of rely on them to keep me alive!), but even as important and enjoyable as they are, I want to demonstrate that my love for the Lord is even greater. I will let go of one GOOD thing to grab on to a GREAT thing. So in one sense, fasting is giving us practice to choose the most important things. It puts our will and mind in the proper order over our feelings, passions and desires.
What are some of the good things we can set aside for a time to show ourselves that we really do not NEED them? Electronics. Salt. Dessert. Meat. Soda. Facebook. Coffee. TV. Snacks. Alcohol. Restaurants. There are many great lists on-line to help with creative ideas. But the main reason we would fast from those things is because we want to learn how to fast from SIN. That’s the goal. Most of us do not have the spiritual fortitude to fast completely from judgmental or explicit thoughts. Few of us can perfectly keep the Ten Commandments and live the Beatitudes. So we need to start with something smaller. We need to build up our fasting muscles. Start with things we really enjoy; food, drink, entertainment, niceties and comforts. Then we start some heavy lifting. Fast from swearing, gossiping, ignoring, bickering and complaining. Then we go for the Gold. Fast from judging, coveting, sloth, greed and negativity. All the while we are strengthening our muscles to learn how to fast from sin.
St. Pope John Paul II said “Let us therefore discover anew the humility and the courage to pray and fast so that power from on high will break down the walls of lies and deceit.”
So fasting can be said to be setting our priorities. It is teaching us to deny small things from ourselves so we can eventually learn to deny sin altogether. Fasting produces supernatural freedom and healing. It instructs us in self control. It unites us with people who never have the luxury of the things we abstain from. It helps to balance our physical life with our spiritual life. It is a powerful weapon used against Satan. It teaches us not to take good things for granted. It empties us of unnecessary stuff to make more room for God. It humbly reminds us of the things we truly NEED and the many blessings of abundance we have. It is said to give us clear minds and clean hearts. It reminds us of our total dependence upon God. When we fast out of choice, we should remember those who are on a permanent fast against their will. It results in renewal. Fasting is an opportunity to grow deeper in our spiritual lives and an honor to fast with Jesus and the Saints!