By the Rev’d Dr. Daniel McGrath
This year during Lent the topics of Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving will be featured in many sermons, written about in many parish newsletters, and thought about in detail by most practicing Churchmen around the country. These three disciplines were commended by our Lord in his Sermon on the Mount and have been practiced in the Church since the time of the Apostles. Let us bear in mind from the outset of this article two important points: first that these disciplines are not only to observed during Lent, but they are good for the whole Church Year and are to be re-discovered and implemented with greater attention during Lent; second, having disciplines such as these does not make Christianity into a religion of “works.” Salvation is offered freely by God through Jesus Christ to those who believe, and we are given an opportunity to receive this gift by faith. However, as members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and as his disciples, we wish to grow in maturity and to profit from these disciplines in the course of our development.
Let us begin with the topic prayer. No Christian can survive long without prayer, for it strengthens our bond to God, opens us to His grace and keeps Him within our line of sight. God soon fades out of the vision of those who do not pray. How should we approach God in prayer? Unfortunately, many people have the mistaken idea that prayer consists of merely asking God for things, as though he were the cosmic Room Service of our hotel! Then, sinking to the lowest level of bad taste, people grumble when God does not respond in the exact way they hoped, and they even neglect to give Him the tip! Let us remember that prayer is communion with God—it is not just asking Him for things.
Anglicans learn from their Book of Common Prayer that there are different components to a life of prayer. Adoration is the contemplation, enjoyment and worship of God; Thanksgiving is the acknowledgment of God’s good gifts to us; in Confession we repent of our sins and seek God’s forgiveness; we Petition God to supply our daily needs; and we offer Intercession for the needs of others. Of course we learn how to pray from our Lord himself in his Sermon on the Mount, in which he offered the model that we know as “The Lord’s Prayer.” He also encouraged his disciples to pray discretely, and “not as the hypocrites” who pray openly so that they can be seen by men. He taught his disciples to pray simply, not with vain repetitions “as the heathen,” for God knows what we need and he hears even the most simple prayer. Christ taught his disciples to pray in safety, by which I mean the safety of God’s will: “Thy will be done.” God has left himself the power of discretion in the manner and timing of his response to our prayers. Otherwise, prayer would be far too dangerous an activity for man if we could just ask for anything our flesh desired.
Let us come now to the topic of Fasting. In general terms, to fast is to eat sparingly or to abstain from all or certain foods. Usually it is intended as a spiritual exercise. Christians should fast because our Lord taught us to do so, both by his own example and by his instructions. He said not, “if ye fast,” but rather “when ye fast.” Fasting was clearly practiced by the Apostles, especially when seeking the guidance of the Holy Ghost. St. Paul fasted “oft.” Fasting was practiced quite rigorously by some in the early Church, when it was considered to be a total abstinence from food, for all or part of the fast day. In more recent times, fasting has come to mean merely a restricted diet, or a lessening in quantity on those days.
In the Anglican Church, fasting is expected, as one can see from the Table of Fast [Day]s in the front of the Prayer Book (page li). This is a table of fast days on which “the Church requires such a measure of abstinence as is more especially suited to extraordinary acts and exercises of devotion.” The Forty Days of Lent are included in this Table.
What is the value of fasting? Fasting is a useful aid to repentance, as we see with the people of Nineveh. Fasting is useful as an aid to devotion, for it helps us prepare mentally and physically to approach God in worship without distractions. Fasting is useful as a preparation for ministry, as when Our Lord fasted in the wilderness. Fasting is an aid to increasing our spiritual focus. When our Lord’s disciples failed in their attempts to help a demon-possessed boy, he commented that this could have happened only “by prayer and fasting.”
When choosing something to fast from, there is room for discretion and ultimately the exact details of your own fast should be between you and God. Yet our Lord did give a few guidelines in the Sermon on the Mount, and the experience of the Church is instructive, as well. First, we should fast simply. That is to say, we should not be ostentatious in our fasting so that we are noticed and commended by men, but we should fast for God alone. We should also fast safely. The point of fasting is not to endanger our health or impair our ability to work or interact with others, but to engage in a profitable spiritual exercise. Finally, we should fast appropriately. Fasting is not merely an opportunity for self-improvement projects such as quitting smoking. The time to adopt a healthy lifestyle is now, and we should not wait for Lent to do it.
What then may we fast from? If you are interested in being more traditional, the most common fasts consist fasting until evening of each fast day, or in some traditions, until 3 o’clock, the hour of Christ’s death, or in yet other traditions, two light meals and one full meal each day. These fasts usually mean that you eat meat only once a day and that you abstain from meat on Fridays. We should fast from something which is good, pleasant, pleasurable, comfortable, but not necessary for our health and well-being. Our fast should be inconspicuous. For example, who’s going to notice if you choose the less comfortable chair when you walk into a room, or if you leave off your favorite TV program? For more guidance, you may of course ask your parish priest.
Let us conclude with the topic of Almsgiving: what is it? Almsgiving means giving money, goods or time to the special service of God. “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” The practice of almsgiving is a recognition on our part of the sovereignty of God. By making a tangible return of our substance to him, we acknowledge that all we have is really his. There are different kinds of alms, so let us begin with the most basic, the Tithe. God commanded the agrarian society of Israel in the Old Testament to give a tenth of their produce to the service of God, and today it is commonly expected that Christians tithe on their income. Another form of almsgiving is to relieve the poor through donations of money or goods. This can be done through your parish or through community relief organizations. The donation of time through volunteer work is a commendable form of Almsgiving, as is time spent in intercessory prayer.
How do we go about almsgiving? As with prayer and fasting, we should give alms discretely, and not “as the hypocrites” who do it in order to be noticed by men. “Let not thy right hand know what thy left hand doeth.” We should give alms cheerfully and not grudgingly or out of necessity, for “the Lord loveth a cheerful giver.” We should give alms faithfully. “To do good and to distribute, forget not, for with such sacrifices God is well-pleased.” Let us think of how God provides for us day by day, year by year, and then try to mirror that faithfulness in our service to God and to our neighbor.
May God bless our Lenten observance, to the end that all we do may be for his glory and for our benefit.
by the Rev’d Dr. Daniel McGrath
Fr. Daniel McGrath is serving as a chaplain in the US Navy. He earned the Doctor of Musical Arts Degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He resides in Southern California, with his wife and two children.