Muslims have completed the month of Ramadan. During this time, all food is foresworn daily until one takes a small meal after sundown. We salute our Muslim neighbors who now celebrate the festive time of Eid-ul-Fitr.
We greet our Jewish neighbors as one more year begins. L’shanah tovah! Judaism observes one major day of fasting per year, Yom Kippur, during this season of high holy days.
Patterns of fasting have been in place for centuries for many Christians, though they have been relaxed among Roman Catholics since Vatican II. In recent years Protestants have “discovered” this discipline. Many other religions encourage fasting, especially Hinduism.
Fasting also pertains to sexual relations.
Orthodox Christianity has four periods of fasting each year, two in the usual periods of Lent and Advent. The other two are shorter and come in the summer. In addition, Orthodox Christians fast on Wednesdays and Fridays all year long in honor and memory of the betrayal and the crucifixion of Jesus.
“Fasting” is not always fasting, however. For Muslims, fasting means no food or drink during the hours prescribed. For most Christians, fasting has really meant abstinence. Orthodox Christians, for example, eat what amounts to a vegan and alcohol-free diet during fasting periods and Wednesdays and Fridays.
What’s this all about? It is a discipline with many layers of meaning. On one hand you can see it as identification with the poor and thus draw from it hints for social ministry. This was not the original meaning, however, in most communities that fast. Originally fasting was a discipline intended to make you reflect on your sensual desires by focusing mostly on food. After all, gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins. Gluttony is like lust and anger and the others; each one is a form of excess, and we need to draw back from and gain control on our excesses if we are to draw close to God.
The teaching of Christianity is that God has already drawn close to us, indeed has identified with us, in the person of Jesus Christ. This is the gracious truth that grounds our faith and nothing must be allowed to obscure it. Nonetheless, we easily ride roughshod over that gift by indulging ourselves to the point of absurdity in any of our pet pleasures. To remind ourselves of that tendency, and to offer correction for the soul through the body, we fast.
Among Orthodox Christians (and others, I am sure), our stress is on the purpose and not the practice; that is to say, fastidiousness is not the point. Legalism is contrary to the spirit of the Gospel. Fasting is a discipline, not a punishment, and if it separates you from God through anger or frustration then you might as well drop it until you learn how to do it correctly. It’s not that you have to do it; it’s that you get to do it out of love for God.
Fasting is one of three ascetic disciplines, along with charity and prayer. “Ascetic” comes from the Greek word for athletic training for Olympic competitors. When you are in athletic training you accept rules and restrictions along with your practice, in order to improve the functioning of your body. Fasting is the same idea; it is spiritual training. The point here is to get to the soul, so to speak, through the body. So it is with fasting. Many of our spiritual Traditions call for us to discover their meaning in a different way; namely, through disciplined practice. In this way we discover the Tradition anew each time. Fasting, like many disciplines, can be a great blessing.
Published 03 Oct 08