By the Rev’d Dr. Charles Erlandson
If you’re following along with the 1928 Prayer Book lectionary, you’ll have noticed that I’m meditating on the lesson from the Gospel Proper lesson and not the 2nd lesson from Morning Prayer (if not, then you probably won’t have a clue what I’m talking about! Isn’t Anglicanese great?!) On special days, such as Ash Wednesday, I’ll occasionally do this. The lesson from Hebrews 12 that we would have otherwise read will be read during the 4th Sunday after Easter anyway – so you won’t have to wait long to get to it!
Today is, of course, Ash Wednesday. For this reason, the lesson today is about fasting. Jesus’ main point in the first part of Matthew 6 seems to be about how when we give alms, pray, and fast that we should do them unto the Lord, and not for men to see. In its 1st century Jewish context, this was obviously a problem. And it may still be a problem in some ways today.
However, behind the problem Jesus is addressing is an important assumption, and that assumption is that we are, in fact, giving alms, praying, and fasting. In the U.S., unless you’re from a Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Episcopalian background, you are unlikely to practice the discipline of fasting. Even if you have such a background, there’s still a good chance you don’t regularly fast.
If you have an Evangelical background, you may still be in the mode of reacting to Roman Catholicism so that you see fasting as something of a superstitious ritual. But if you take the words of Jesus seriously, as we claim to, He assumes you’re fasting. “When you fast . . .” He says, assuming that His disciples are, in fact, fasting.
The problem we have today is that we have largely lost the meaning and the practical “how to” of fasting. To make some small step toward remedying this, I’m going to attempt to provide a full course meal on fasting in one meditation. There will be a lot here to chew on, but I expect that as with other Daily Breads that some of you are returning to them later to meditate upon them more fully.
First, by what authority do we fast? As I just mentioned, Jesus Himself assumes we are. We also have the example of Jesus Himself fasting for 40 days and 40 nights, from which we obtain the 40-day fast of Lent. We’ve also heard Jesus tell His disciples that some demons only come out by prayer and fasting. As if this weren’t enough, we also have the examples of the apostles fasting after Christ’s Ascension in Acts 13:3 and 14:23 and 2 Corinthians 6:5 and 11:27. The earliest Christian work we have outside of the New Testament, a late first-century work called The Didache (or Teaching of the Apostles), assumes that Christians will fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, and all of Church history until at least the Reformation also assumes Christian will practice fasting.
Second, why do we fast? I can think of at least 5 reasons.
1. To chastise, discipline, or train the flesh – so that it may be made subject to the spirit.
2. As a sign of repentance, a recognition of our sin and its seriousness, so that we might be outwardly and inwardly submitted to God and humbled before Him in all things.
3. So that the spirit may be more fervent and earnest in prayer, clearing our minds and focusing our bodies on self-examination and our relationship with God.
4. So that we may prepare ourselves before God rightly and devoutly to celebrate the Atoning Death and Glorious Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, and especially to prepare for Easter.
5. To unite ourselves with Jesus Christ, who fasted and prayed for 40 days and 40 nights.
Third, how should we fast? A whole book could be written on this, and there are many ways to fast – not just one.
Traditionally, fasting was done from dawn until after Evening Prayer. Fasting during Lent meant abstaining from meat and dairy products. In general, the way I see fasting is as a kind of mnemonic device to remind us of the presence of God. Like anything in the Christian life, if fasting ever gets to the point where we’re doing it just to be doing it and don’t know why we’re doing it, we’ve taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque. The point is to remind us of our dependence on God for everything.
It works like this. I fast (don’t eat), and I get hungry. Every time I feel the pangs of hunger, I treat it as a divine messenger, an angel, from God reminding me to turn to Him. What I do at that moment of turning to Him can take many forms, but the conscious turning to God at the moment of hunger is essential. If we fast and get hungry and endure it just to show how “tough” we are, then fasting is useless. But if we use every hunger pang from our fast to remind us of our dependence on God (which is one of the main points of hunger and eating anyway) and to turn to Him for sustenance, then fasting is of great spiritual benefit.
So how should you fast? For many of you, it might take the form of a fast from food. Having said this, a total fast is not the only kind of fast that is possible, and if you’re not in the habit of fasting, don’t do something “heroic” (i.e. “stupid”!) You might, for example, choose to give up certain meals or certain foods.
You might choose to give up something else for Lent. When I was a kid in North Babylon, New York (Lawn Giland), we were surrounded by Italian and Irish Roman Catholics. Being “good Catholics,” they gave up things like smoking and bubblegum for Lent. If you choose to give up something for Lent, choose something that you are too addicted to, for one of the reasons for fasting is to break us of our disproportionate attachments and addictions to the things of this world.
I hate to spoil anybody’s fun, but no hair shirts or glass in shoes or flagellation this year for Lent! Those devices are unnatural, and they always seemed to me to smack of someone trying too hard to compensate for some spiritual lack.
One way I’ve discovered to fast year ‘round is to lay hold of the disappointments, pain, and suffering that God sends my way every day and year – without me seeking them. Rather than me dictating what my pain or deprivation will be – why not let God choose? If he has given you a physical ailment, or disappointment in circumstances or relationships – receive that as His godly discipline. Every time you have a pang of pain (instead of hunger), use it to drive you back to God. This is one of God’s purposes for the pain in your life anyway. Lent allows us to highlight the practices of a disciple of Jesus Christ that should be taking place throughout our lives.
Finally, what about what I call a “positive fast”? Instead of simply “giving up” something for Lent and depriving yourself, what about “taking up” something for Lent? Why not dedicate yourself to a time of daily devotion, or more fervent prayer? Why not examine some of the resolutions you’ve made in your daily meditations and find one or more of these to “take up” during Lent? A good, traditional, example is the discipline of giving alms (which Jesus also mentions in Matthew 6.)
Best of all, do both: give something up for Lent and take something up for Lent. Just as we must both mortify the flesh and allow God to sanctify us, it’s a good idea to replace the thing you’ve given up with some godly work that you “take up.”
Like I said earlier, I’ve given you a lot to chew on. As with all of the Daily Breads, don’t try to gorge on it all at once: as in overeating food, you might find that it gives you a “soul-ache”! Instead, focus on one particular way to fast this year.
May God bless whatever fast you undertake during Lent as a means of drawing you closer to Him.
Resolution and Point for Meditation:
Prayerfully choose a fast for Lent this year.
Prayer: O Lord, who for our sake fasted 40 days and 40 nights, give us grace to fast, that our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may obey You in righteousness and holiness and be drawn ever closer to You, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.
Fr. Charles Erlandson is the assistant rector at Good Shepherd Reformed Episcopal Church in Tyler, TX, where he also serves as a high school teacher at Good Shepherd School. He holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (U.K.), teaches as an adjunct professor at Cranmer Theological House, and has a number of other books in progress. His daily devotional, “Give Us This Day,” can be found at <http://giveusthisdaydevotional.com/>.
Article originally published in the original email/print journal Earth & Altar, in the Lent, 2007 edition.