Once again as the Christian world begins to prepare to celebrate Easter, our minds turn to the topic of fasting. Once subject to rigid and legalistic regulations, fasting remains an important part of Christian piety — especially in preparation for Easter — although its details differ according to different cultures and traditions.
Fasting is not something unique to Christianity, nor even to the religions that worship one God, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The great religions of India stress fasting and other ascetic practices. However, within the two biblical faiths of Judaism and Christianity, we find many points of contact that also help us to understand fasting.
But as we begin to consider what all this means, it is important to stress what religious fasting is not. It is not a diet. While the externals of fasting and dieting may be similar, there are significant differences in how they are practiced. Fasting must also be strictly differentiated from psychological eating disorders which are harmful and can be fatal. Lastly, although fasting clearly involves limits on eating, from the earliest times the prophets have stressed that fasting is more about a disposition of the soul and how one behaves; it is not just skipping a meal. Jesus (Mt 6:16-18) and the prophets lay great stress on the fact that one’s interior attitude and behavior is far more important than mere external fasting (Joel 2:12-14).
Perhaps the most comprehensive description of the “ideal” fast is found in Isaiah 58:1-12. Isaiah speaking for God lists the elements of the fast that pleases God:
“To break unjust fetters, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free….Is it not sharing your food with the hungry, sheltering the homeless poor, if you see someone lacking clothes to clothe him….If you do away with the yoke, the clenched fist and malicious words, if you deprive yourself for the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, your light will rise in the darkness.”
The description of the fast in Isaiah and the Great Judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46 are both striking and profoundly unsettling. The criteria for being blessed or cursed revolve around whether one has fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger and visited the imprisoned. By these criteria, one could come to the conclusion that tons of unconsumed chocolates, gallons of undrunk wine, beer and cocktails mean little if nothing is done to work for justice, to help the poor. According to Isaiah, an empty stomach means little to God if the fist is still clenched.
There are other characteristics of Christian fasting, many of which are held in common with fasting in Judaism.
First, fasting is penitential. It is part of what one does to seek God’s forgiveness for sins committed. The great fast of the citizens of Nineveh in the Book of Job brings about forgiveness of their sins and the salvation of the city and its inhabitants. As such, penitential fasting required conversion — metanoia — a “change of mind, attitude” and not just abstinence from food. Very often in the Bible, fasting is connected to almsgiving.
Second, in many religions, including Christianity, fasting is sometimes not connected with penance but with intense prayer. The 40-day fast of Jesus in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11 and parallels) can hardly be considered penitential. It was rather a time of intense prayer and struggle as Jesus prepared for his ministry. Fasting is often seen as a discipline that helps one focus and focus intensely. This notion of fasting as a focusing of the spirit is found in many of the major traditions of the world. So, once again, not eating is not the most important element of fasting.
In the biblical tradition, a fast that consisted only of not eating would not be considered a true fast. Refraining from a meal is merely a discipline, a tool, to help the believer focus on the inner, more important aspects of the fast: repentance and intense prayer, which lead to works of mercy and justice. The challenge of true fasting has far less to do with food and drink than it does with extending the Kingdom of God. If the 40-day fast of Jesus was not an end in itself — but was the preparation for his ministry of healing, justice and preaching the Good News — so too for the believer fasting is a preparation for coming closer to God and carrying on the ministry of Jesus in our time and in our world. This means a ministry of justice for the poor, nonviolence (the unclenched fist) and liberation.
The real challenge of Lent is not figuring out what we are not going to do for the next 40 days, but what we are going to do to make the Kingdom of God more visible and the Gospel more credible in our world.