Fasting 102

Second of two parts. Part One.

By Derek Olsen

Yesterday we began talking about fasting, the pre-eminent spiritual discipline recommended by the prayer book for Lent. We got as far as the externals, the nuts and bolts of the discipline. Now we’ll take a step deeper and look into the theology, spirit, and purpose that animates the practice, connects it to Lent, and empowers it as a tool for the Gospel.

Reading what any of the authors of the Early Church wrote about fasting will quickly dispel any illusion you might have that the discipline of fasting is fundamentally about food. Leo the Great proposes that the food should be primarily a symbol of a deeper kind of renunciation. Fasting for him is a whole-person endeavor where we abstain in mind and spirit as well as body. Indeed, the bodily abstaining from food is a reminder that we should be abstaining from a whole lot more. Like what? In a word: sin—and from the habits that give it comfort and growth. The act of abstaining from food reminds us that we should be abstaining from other behaviors as well.

Fasting jolts us out of our regular patterns. As a result, Leo enjoins, it gives us an opportunity to take a step back from business-as-usual. If we’re going to take care about what we eat, why not take care about how we live, think, and talk? Don’t just refrain from food, Leo counsels; refrain from some of your bad behaviors too. (See Leo’s Sermon XLII.)

In offering this advice, Leo is doing nothing more than reiterating and recasting the words of the prophet Isaiah whose voice thunders down through the centuries:

Is such a day the fast that I choose,

a day to humble oneself?

Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,

and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?

Will you call this a fast,

a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

When you see the naked, to cover them,

and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

(Isaiah 58:5-7)

John Cassian who introduced monasticism to Gaul gives deep advice as well that builds on Leo’s. He tells us to always keep before our eyes the goal, the whole point of the exercise. Fasting, he reminds us, is a means to an end, not an end in itself. If we ever lose sight of the end, then it’s time to end the practice and to consider some other ways to go after the real goal. He writes:

For the sake of this [purity of heart], then, everything is to be done and desired. For its sake solitude is to be pursued; for its sake we know that we must undertake fasts, vigils, labors, bodily deprivation, readings, and other virtuous things . . . so that by taking these steps we may be able to ascend to the perfection of love.

These observances do not exist for themselves . . . what is gained by fasting is less than what is spent on anger, the fruit that is obtained from reading is not so great as the loss that is incurred by contempt for one’s brother. It behooves us, then, to carry out the things that are secondary—namely fasts, vigils, the solitary life, and meditation on Scripture—for the sake of the principle scopos (goal), which is purity of heart or love, than for their sake to neglect this principle virtue . . . (Conf. 1.7.1-2)

Acts of piety like fasting are entirely secondary to the real goal which is, for Christians, always the cultivation of love towards God and neighbor. They are means to the end and never the end in themselves—as Jesus himself reminds us in his words on the subject:

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt 6:16-18)

Jesus—and Matthew who records these words—evidently saw no need to explain to the people why they would want to fast; for them it was self-evident. For us, it’s not so clear.

In the Bible, fasting is mentioned any number of times. It’s particularly prevalent in the Minor Prophets (Hosea through Malachi) that we know all too often as the biblical equivalent of “fly-over territory.” Preeminently fasting appears as a sign of repentance and sorrow for sins—and here’s our Lenten connection. Whenever I consider the Ash Wednesday imposition of ashes, the words from my Lutheran youth ring in my ears: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return; repent, and believe in the Good News.” This one line collects the two major themes of the day and of Lent: remembrance of our mortality and our need for repentance to hear again God’s word of grace. We fast, following the example of the patriarchs, prophets, and martyrs, to feel in our flesh the pangs of hunger—reminders of our embodied-ness and signs of our mortality—and as a sign of contrition for those things done and left undone.

This Lent, I urge you to take seriously Ash Wednesday’s invitation—to consider the state of your life and soul in the face of ultimate realities—and to embrace some form of fasting and self-denial. It needn’t be something heroic (indeed, it’s probably better for your humility if it’s not), but I urge you to make it something worthwhile. Furthermore, I commend to you not just refraining from something but embracing the full discipline of the church: restraint coupled with almsgiving and prayer. As Christ fasted these forty days in the wilderness let us persevere in his company. Watching, waiting, hoping, praying, may these days fit us for the joyful Easter morn when we rise to greet that Sun who shall never go down.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. He is an adjunct professor at Emory’s Candler School of Theology where he teaches in homiletics, liturgics, and New Testament. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc.

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