|Temptation of Christ by Tissot|
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’” —Matthew 4:1-4
Today we continue our series of Lenten/Easter posts with a look at fasting. Think of Lent and most people immediately think of fasting. But what is fasting, and what is not fasting? Why do we fast? Does God expect us to fast? What do we gain by it?
In our original post in this series, Quinquagesima Sunday, we detailed some of frequent occurrences, and importance of, the number forty throughout the Bible. As ubiquitous as forty seems to be, fasting occurs at least as often.
WHAT IS, AND WHAT IS NOT, FASTING
First, and foremost, fasting is a sacramental; a holy practice through which we are drawn closer to God. In its truest form, fasting is very simple. We do not eat. Period. Now we all know that the human body requires sustenance. Going without food for an extended period of time can have serious consequences. How long a person can survive without food depends on body size, metabolic rates, surrounding conditions, and lots of other factors. Needless to say, starving to death is a very unpleasant experience. While it takes a relatively long time to starve to death, a person dies in only 3-5 days without water. The message here is that when undertaking a holy fast, a person must still drink water and eat something.
If you will permit me a little aside here, I’d like to address a misconception that I’ve heard from a number of Christians. Some people tell me when Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days and nights he didn’t eat or drink anything. One woman said, “I could never do that, but after all, he is God.” The point she’s missing is that he was also man, and as a man he needed food and water just as we do. I’ve heard radio preachers say things like, “He went into the desert where there was no food or water.”
|Jesus in the Wilderness|
Come on folks, let’s use our heads here. Reread the quote from Matthew at the top of this post. Jesus went into the wilderness. Funny that people imagine Jesus couldn’t find food, but they readily accept that John the Baptist survived in the wilderness on “locusts and wild honey.” (By the way, the practice of eating locusts continues to this day.) In the wilderness there also things such as pine nuts, wild berries, etc. Matthew adds, “…and afterward he was hungry.” Of course he was; he’d been fasting. Fasting, not starving.
WHY A PERSON FASTS
Despite being made in the image of God, we remain physical creatures. Our response to sacred moments must involve not just our mind, but our body as well. This is why the Church calendar contains both feasts and fasts. St. Augustine deals with the idea of fasting in this way, “We must fast because it is sometimes necessary to check the delight of the flesh in respect to licit pleasures in order to keep it from yielding to illicit joys.”
A number of Early Church Fathers recommend fasting as a way to build discipline. Our modern world rejects the idea. We live in a society that glorifies consumption. Party hardy…eat, drink and be merry. So let’s look at some other ways to view fasting. Think of it as a way to physically express our hunger for God in our life. As John Calvin said, “…with a full stomach our mind is not so lifted up to God.”
A person can use a period of fasting to become one with those who suffer from food depravation. When you feel a hunger pang, imagine what it must be like to see your children starving and have no way of providing the food that they need. Food always tastes better when we’re hungry. If you want to be hungry, fast. And then when you do eat, eat with a deep appreciation for the food that God has provided you. Make the practice of eating a prayer of thanksgiving.
As we learned in our Shrove Tuesday Post, in times past Lent was a time of real, self-imposed hardship. Christians did without all animal products…fats, meats, milk and eggs. There are many instances in history where people ate nothing during the day and ended the fast with a single evening meal. In the Early Church the believers maintained a vigil fast from Good Friday afternoon —the time of Jesus’ death— until Easter morning. If you count it out, you’ll see it comes to 40 hours, the time Christ is traditionally assumed to have been in the grave.
The modern Lenten fast usually entails abstaining from meat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays, eating only one full meal a day, making the other two combined less than a full meal, and not eating between meals. So, rather than fasting, most people today abstain. That is, they do without certain foods during specific periods. This is where the phrase, “What are you giving up for Lent?” comes from. In addition to the regimen above, or in some cases instead of, people decide to give up one item or food group that they particularly enjoy. Most commonly it is sweets.
NOT AN OPTIONAL PRACTICE
One thing that must be understood about fasting is, except for the elderly or infirm, fasting is a requirement of Christian life, not an optional practice. Both the Old Testament and the New make it clear that believers are expected to fast. How you do it, when you do it, and why you do it are up to you. But the bottom line is you are expected to fast. Jesus said, “The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.” (Matt. 9:15) Recall also that Acts tells us that, “…while they were praying and fasting the Holy Spirit came upon them.”
Our next post in this series will continue the idea of fasting by examining a particular food developed specifically for Lenten fasting.
Until then, we wish you Peace and Blessings.
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