Fasting has been a discipline of the church from its earliest days, and is common in other religions too.
It can mean abstaining from some luxury foods on a temporary or permanent basis – as for example many monastic communities abstain from eating meat permanently, and all Roman Catholics traditionally abstained from meat on Fridays as a form of fasting. Or it can mean complete abstinence from food and all drinks other than water (or sometimes herbal tea) for a length of time. Jesus’ forty-day fast is the longest a person practised in fasting might undertake; beyond that it is inadvisable for health reasons.
Abstinence from food is not the only kind of fast. Fasting from watching TV is a popular alternative – or maybe fasting from shopping. During Lent many Christians choose to give something up as a form of fasting – this may be a kind of food, for example giving up chocolate or sugar in tea, or it can be some kind of comfort – perhaps sitting on a hard chair instead of in an armchair.
In every case it is done as a reminder, a help in focusing the mind – either to free oneself for complete availability to God, or as a small discomfort serving to recall attention again and again to focus on prayer. In our passages above we see Anna fasting and praying as part of her dedication to God, the church fasting and praying in preparation for anointing leaders, and Jesus’ reference to fasting in response to sorrow and bereavement. Jesus points out that the one really bad reason for fasting is to show off!
Have you ever fasted as a spiritual discipline? What was your experience like? In what ways did you find it helpful?
Can you think of some things that you believe every Christian should always fast from, as part of their commitment to personal holiness?
If you feel led to try fasting as part of your prayer, what kind of fast do you think might be appropriate for you? How would you time it to fit in with the obligations of your regular commitments?
O Holy Spirit of God, as you led Jesus into the wilderness to fast and pray by himself for forty long days and nights, so you call us to practise a discipline of self denial to help us draw closer to him. Speak quietly in our hearts, Spirit of God, so that we may know what you are asking us to undertake and what to relinquish. Give us, we pray, the wisdom to discern your voice in our hearts, and the grace to follow your leading. This we ask in Jesus’ holy name; Amen.