Fasting: Why do Christians Fast for Change?
Through the bible and in contemporary Christian traditions, fasting is both a spiritual and social practice of drawing closer to God and to our neighbour. It is in fasting that we discover the stranger in need and offer them our support. Jesus, following in the apocalyptic tradition of Daniel and the leaders and prophets before them, fasted for a more just earth. Our Lenten fast calls us to do the same.
Matthew’s Jesus taught his disciples to be discrete when they fasted (Matthew 6: 16-18). This was in reference to the regular fasting for personal spiritual growth rather than the social-spiritual fasting done alongside others for wholeness and healing in society at large.
Jews traditionally fast on Mondays and Thursdays, and the early Church followed this custom although they chose two different days – Wednesdays and Fridays. Fasting was also common in times of personal crisis or to move God to act through prayerful fasting. Today fasting is less common in Christianity than it used to be but is seeing a revival in usage through the Evangelical rediscovery of monastic disciplines.
Jesus’ Extreme-Fast: Resisting The Lure of Power
The fast that inspires many Christians is that of Luke’s Jesus when he spends forty days in the wilderness. This is a fast from all food but not from water (Luke 4: 2). While fasting Jesus is tempted three times and all three temptations are political in nature. First, he is tempted to get food without work instead of trusting in God (Luke 4: 3). Second, he is tempted to gain political status and authority without legitimacy by his “worship” of Satan (Luke 4: 7). Finally there is a temptation both to pride and to putting God to the test to see if God will keep him safe. The temptations are political because the purpose of the fast is to prepare himself for a political battle with what St Paul would later call “the principalities and powers of this world” (Eph. 6) or what Catholic Worker Dorothy Day called, “this filthy rotten system”.
Daniel’s Partial Fast: Refusing to Compromise
Daniel’s fast is of a different degree. When taken into captivity by a foreign power Daniel, a skilled administrator is put to work for his captors and given a good job. He is even offered the food that only people of privilege could eat. Daniel’s response is to refuse to take the fine food and live a vegetarian diet. Daniel preferred solidarity with the oppressed people than defiling himself with the food of privilege (Daniel 1).
Esther’s National Day of Fasting: Solidarity with Scapegoats
Jesus’ and Daniel’s fasts appear to be personal and private, although it is possible that neither are. There is a regular fast of lamentation, however, written into the hearts of the Hebrew people (Lev. 23: 27). Fasts may also be called in times of political emergency (Joel 2: 15 & Esther 4:3). These national fasts were corporate and public acts of lamentation intended to change the political landscape. And in a religious context where spiritual and social were not separate realities a prayerful fast to bring people closer both to God and neighbour is a deeply important spiritual tradition.
Present and Engaged Fasting
Fasting is a near universal language of faith. For Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and many of the traditions of the Indian subcontinent fasting, of varying degrees is practiced by each generation. In the Christian tradition it has been most associated with two seasons: Advent and Lent.
In Advent, Christians are invited to prepare for the return of what Daniel calls “The Human One” to judge the earth; a judgement, which, according to Matthew’s Jesus, is based on how we welcome the hungry, naked, and outsider. In Lent, fasting is the preparation for Holy Week, the time when Jesus confronts the injustice behind all earthly authority and reveals the impotence of the world’s violent systems.
Dom Helder Camara once famously wrote, “When I give food to the poor they call me a saint; when I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist.” In fasting we rediscover our hungry neighbours and, with them, call in to question a government and the corporations that use hunger as a weapon against the poor.
Fasting and Wellbeing
Fasting is never taken up for the sake of gaining health benefits of ‘not eating’ but nor should it be done in order to cause harm to oneself. It is to honour God, not to dishonour our own bodies. Fasting should always be undertaken with care and, if in doubt, with proper medical consultation.