Fasting: A Foundational Course in the School of Freedom – Part I

Jesus In The Desert
March 7, 2015

...continued from The Liturgical Year: An Efficacious Drama

Fasting has been central to the Judeo-Christian tradition for millennia (e.g. the Day of Atonement was proclaimed to be a day of fasting, the likely meaning of the “affliction” [anah] God commands in Lev 16:31; 23:27).  In the Old Testament, there were public fasts (e.g. 2 Chr 20:3; Ezra 8:21-23; Neh 1:4-11; Jer 36:9) and personal fasts (e.g. 2 Sam 12:15-23; 1 Kings 21:27; Ps 69:1-15). 

Fasting was generally intended as an act of humbling oneself before God, and to mourn and do penance for one’s personal sins and for the corporate sins of God’s People.  The mourning was recognition that these sins were a willful rebellion against God that had separated the sinner(s) from the covenant with Him.  Fasting was an act of personal and community humility, giving witness to the fact that God was the Source every gift we have.

However, as with all good things, man can and will mistake its meaning and purpose.  In the New Testament, Jesus assumed that fasting was something that every Jew would do.  He did not do away with fasting, but He did warn that it could be done for the wrong reason, thereby undermining its efficacy.  With Christ, the Covenant promise is now fulfilled and so fasting is to become joyful rather than sorrowful (see Mt 6:16-18).  Jesus demonstrated its continued importance, fasting as He began His pubic ministry (Mt 4:2) though He also indicated that for His disciples, the time for fasting would come with His death (see Mk 2:18-28).

In contemporary society, it is not accurate to say as do some, that fasting is universally rejected.  Rather, it would be more correct to say that fasting is seriously misunderstood because the human person is misunderstood.  The fasting of brides for their wedding day, the fasting of fashion models and actors for their public image, the fasting (with certain foods anyway) of athletes and body builders is understood by most as necessary to achieve some desired goal.  Many contemporary people can even admire at least the demonstration of will power, if not the goal.  Yet, Christian fasting serves a much more important purpose.

Fasting contributes to overcoming our false sense of self-sufficiency; it humbles us and allows us to recognize God as the Source of all our gifts.  When stop filling ourselves with the goods of God’s creation, we open within ourselves a bit of room for the Holy Spirit to work.  When approached rightly, it can reorient our attitudes to that of humble thanksgiving, opening us up to God’s invitation to conversion for the sake of love.  In addition to this, the Christian tradition gives us additional insights into the purposes of fasting.  We will pick that up in the second segment of this article.

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