With this third Lenten message it has most likely occurred to you that I am making my way through the various disciplines referenced in the Ash Wednesday Invitation to the observance of a holy Lent. (BCP p. 265) My approach comes from more than twenty-five years as a parish priest in helping to connect new converts and long-time, but mostly untutored, Anglicans in the classic disciplines of the Christian life. Those who are students of the literature can no doubt trace those writers who have most influenced me in these matters. So we come now to fasting. Fasting is an almost forgotten discipline for many Christians. Yet in an American society obsessed with food and drink (all one has to do is thumb through an airline magazine), where gluttony is an almost unrecognized sin, (or if recognized is only understood as eating too much), few practices could be more relevant. Those Christians who do choose to occasionally fast soon learn that it is a hard discipline to embrace without it at first consuming too much of their attention—a sure indication of eating’s inordinate importance to us. But those who persevere soon find it eases.
If you lookup fast or fasting in a Bible concordance you’ll find many of the major characters in Holy Scripture from Moses to St. Paul practiced fasting as a spiritual discipline. Jesus—while not specifically commanding his disciples to fast—clearly assumed that they would. It is there not only in his Sermon on the Mount, “When you fast do not be like the hypocrites….” (Matthew 6:16-18) but, also, in his response to the criticism of the Pharisees. (Luke 5:35) More illustrative still is his forty-day fast in the desert of Judah. Down through the Christian centuries sinners and saints, Puritans and Popes, even modern Christian leaders from Billy Graham to Mother Teresa fasted at various times and for different purposes. Our current Prayer Book, as well as the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, lists Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as days of fasting. For that matter all of Lent is set aside in the Church Year as a season for self-denial and abstinence.
While it may seem like a severe practice in an age of indulgence, more than a few Christians have found the seasonal custom of fasting for the specific purpose of drawing nearer to God, or for bringing about a spiritual break-through, profoundly beneficial.
What is fasting? It is abstaining from food or certain foods or drinks that appeal to us for a specific time period. This is not practiced primarily for dietary or nutritional goals, but for spiritual purpose. There are different ways to fast. For instance Abstinence is abstaining from certain foods for a day or a season, such as giving up coffee, sweets, meat, or wine for Lent. Many Episcopalians practice this sorting of fasting during the Lenten season, beginning the discipline on Ash Wednesday and breaking it on Easter Day. Another form of fasting is a partial fast. This is drinking only fruit or vegetable juices for a day or longer. A normal fast is eating no food but drinking water. This can be from dinner to dinner, (a 24 hour period), or from dinner one night to breakfast the morning after the fast day, (a 36 hour stretch). Sometimes this sort of fast is practiced for three days or longer. For obvious reasons this last type of fasting depends upon a person’s health, age, medical condition or profession. For instance I would prefer not to be operated on by a surgeon who was in the middle of such a three-day fast. In my experience the mind doesn’t function quite so well until after the extended fast is broken. Then it seems keenly alert.
Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount applies to all these various types of fasting. He counsels secrecy because he is concerned with our motive. Our purpose needs to be first and foremost to draw nearer to God—to deepen our spiritual life or discern his will, especially in mission (Acts 13:2-3). There are of course many secondary purposes for fasting. It can help jump-start one’s walk with God, especially if we have fallen on dull or slothful times. It can bring a break-through in a relationship, make us more attuned to the leading of the Holy Spirit, give us greater clarity about the future, or aid us in breaking some spiritual bondage or habit. Many find it helpful in humbling themselves before God by revealing what is in them, or just hunger-deep below the surface—things lurk there like anger, bitterness, and impatience, inordinate love of pleasure or daily comfort. More important still is how it brings balance to our lives nurturing temperance, self-control, and freedom—reminding us that most of the time we should be eating to live, not living to eat.
This however needs to be said, and it can hardly be stated too strongly. The point of the Lenten fast is not primarily for gaining self-discipline, clearing spiritual cobwebs, or even obtaining spiritual victories, as wonderful as each of these may be. It is to detach ourselves from finding comfort in food so we may feast on the living God. Drinking deep draughts of the Holy Spirit—the living water. Nourishing ourselves on Christ and his Word, this is the bread of life. You may find it is a joyous thing to make these small sacrifices of food or drink for your Lord, knowing that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. And this is the greatest reward: to experience his presence and good pleasure abiding with you, as you abide with him.