By the Rev’d Bradley Cunningham
It has been a pleasure these past (almost) 30 years to exercise the disciplines of Lent. Each year I learn more and recover more of the Church’s wisdom from Lent, and implement these pearls of wisdom into my life, and now into the lives of my children. As a priest, I enjoy sharing the basics of Lent with the latest group of converts. I tell them that, in my opinion, the Lenten disciplines are the most rewarding and joyful of the Christian year.
Of course fasting is the most obvious of the Lenten disciplines. In typical Anglican fashion, if we want to understand and implement the practice of Lenten fasting, we must first turn to the Book of Common Prayer.
According to the classic Books of Common Prayer (page li in the 1928 American book), Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of fasting for all Christians. Furthermore, all 40 days of Lent and all Fridays throughout the year (except those that fall between Christmas and Epiphany, inclusive) are also days which require special fasting and devotion. This sets up a sort of two tiered system of fasting. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, a complete fast from all food is assigned. On all other fast days, including the other days of Lent, there are no “hard and fast” rules that apply. However, the following guidelines, long established by tradition and practice, are helpful.
1. Fasting on days other than Ash Wednesday and Good Friday means eating only one full meal per day, usually in the evening. It is, however, allowable to eat a small portion of food for sustenance at the regular meal times, so long as the portions do not amount to a full meal.
2. It is also customary to abstain from eating any meat on all fast days. Meat is defined as any flesh from any animal which lives on land; mammal, fowl, or other. However, fish and especially seafood which lack bones are not considered meat and may be eaten on any fast day. This explains the saying, “fishy Friday.” Please note that a vegetarian will need to fast from other foods—perhaps tofu?—perhaps go vegan?
3. Piety also calls on us to “give up” or fast from one thing which is particularly pleasant to us as individuals. Some “give up” dessert. Some “give up” Television. I “give up” Dr. Pepper. My daughters “give up” the internet for 40 straight days!
4. Finally, health and age considerations are factors. Young children, teenagers, and the elderly should fast with wisdom—safely and with health. However, all able bodied persons are expected to participate in the spiritual disciplines of Lent, including fasting.
One last consideration comes as a joyful relief. All Sundays in the year are in fact Feast Days of our Lord (see Am. BCP page l). This includes the Sundays which fall in Lent. Therefore, the fasting rules of Lent do not apply to any Sunday. Even during Lent we break our fasts on Sunday to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Those are the nuts and bolts of fasting. But why fast at all?
First of all, fasting is prayer; specifically, it is the prayer of our flesh. Just as we discipline our minds, hearts, and souls to cry out to God, bearing our need to him, so we are to discipline our body to do the same. In fasting we bear our fleshly needs to the Lord, crying out in our bodies for God’s comfort and sustenance.
Second, Scripture and the witness of the Saints commend fasting. From Moses on Mount Sinai to our Lord Jesus in the desert, again and again we are taught that in order to consecrate ourselves for God’s presence, his revelation, and his work, we must engage in fasting prayer.
Thirdly, Jesus commends fasting to his disciples. In the Gospel, he instructs the disciples that their spiritual failures are to be amended by physical fasting and prayer. In fact, Jesus says that spiritual warfare requires fasting as preparation. The witness of the Gospels is this: no one can become a true prayer warrior, doing battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil, until one engages in fasting.
Finally, fasting illustrates our weakness so that we may rely on the strength of the Lord. In the Lenten Eucharistic readings, St. Paul commends himself and his Apostolic ministry to the Churches on the basis of his fasting on their behalf. His suffering and his physical fasting are an integral part of his ministry to the Church. Why? Because when he was weak (hungry), with his flesh crying out, “This much, O God, with an insatiable emptiness, I need you!” then the Lord strengthened him for the battle of ministry. Remember, also, that when Jesus was hungry from prayer, then Satan fled from him and angels ministered to him.
The Lenten fast is our time to become weak, to cry out in our flesh and our soul. When we are hungry for God, we will be made strong by the Spirit. This is the time of year when “giving up” means “becoming strong.”
The Rev’d Bradley Cunningham and his wife Dianna, with their six children, live in Fernandina Beach, Florida where Father Brad is the Rector of Holy Trinity Church.