I wonder what the words fasting and abstinence mean to you.
Perhaps what Muslims do in Ramadan springs to mind; and how impressive that is amongst the devout, fasting between sunrise and sunset and breaking the fast with prayer and communal celebration.
It seems that Christians have long drifted from the ascetic sense of what fasting and abstinence are.
Although that’s not true for all Christians, certainly outside Western Europe.
I was once very chastened when a student at the University of Surrey, a Jordanian Christian, asked when English Christians begin fasting before Christmas. That prompted a fair bit mirth. After all, the Advent fast is less about preparation for a great feast, and more about mince pies, mulled wine, parties and over-indulgence. The secularised Christmas fast is ‘Dry January’ and ‘Veganuary’.
What she described was the Little Fast - in Advent and before Lent, the Sundays known as Septuagesima, Quinquagesima and Quadragesima -of abstaining from meat, and then the Great Fast – Lent - which is a meat free, dairy free diet.
That sounds very remote, but there are remnants of it still. After all, we say pancakes are eaten the day before Lent because they use up all the ingredients that are going to be given up; except the next day we carry on as normal.
Interestingly for Anglican Christians the same rigour is picked up in the Book of Common Prayer 1662 that speaks of days of fasting and abstinence.
And boy, is it rigorous.
I have done a rough tally that there are 122 fast days which include the eve of feast days, the 40 days of Lent, Ember days and every Friday of the year, unless it’s Christmas Day.
That says something about practices of fasting. But let’s just get our terms clear first.
Fasting and abstinence. But which one’s which?!
Both refer to renunciation, the act of giving something up. Fasting applies to the amount we eat; abstinence to what we eat.
In other words, fasting is going easy on something; abstaining is giving up it up all together.
So when I fast I reduce the intake of all foodstuffs; but when I abstain I remove a particular foodstuff from my diet.
So we’ve thought about fasting practices, what they are and how people might do them. But why do Christians fast?
We fast because Jesus teaches about it.
When Jesus teaches about it he’s absolutely clear about three key points:
1. We only fast in his absence, as part of our expectation for his coming and return; (Matthew 9.14, 15; Luke 2.37);
2. Fasting is not an excuse for showing off, a ‘look how marvellous I am’ approach; it’s about our interior journey with God; (Matthew 6.16, 17);
3. Fasting doesn’t earn you any heavenly brownie points unless accompanied by penitence and sorrow for sin; (Luke 18.12).
So where does this leave us? Is it all too overwhelming? How might fasting connect with us and we with it?
One response is for people to say that they are not going to give up something for Lent but instead take something up, a good work, for example.
Perhaps fasting sounds too old-fashioned or traditional or demanding. Fasting and abstinence can sound uncomfortable in relation to eating disorders, body image issues or controlling habits. Certainly health should be taken into account around fasting practices, especially if you’re taking medication.
Taking something up sounds much more active; you’re doing something. The danger is that we take refuge in doing rather than being.
Fasting is a way of doing something without activism. In other words what we do is give up control by relinquishing a particular pleasure so that we come to appreciate what we have.
I hope that fasting becomes less of a remote practice, because in that way we become a less controlling, less self-indulgent church and a church that turns a way from self-preoccupation and focuses on Christ.
And we can be creative. I know one 17 year old who has given up Instagram for Lent, and believe me that’s a life-changer for him! Another, 15 year old, is omitting lunch on Fridays; he’s doing that prompted by the impressive example of his Muslim friends, and he wants to reconnect with his own faith and its tradition.
So what might all this mean for you?
That’s for you to ponder. And as you do here are three final positives to consider:
1. Fasting and prayer. Prayer is what gives ballast to fasting and abstinence; they’re empty practices unless accompanied by prayer: Jesus is abundantly clear about that. Fasting clarifies prayer, intensifies prayer and turns prayer away from ourselves and back to the heart of God. One practical way to combine fasting and prayer is to skip a meal and use that time to pray; fasting without prayer is a diet!
2. Fasting and the body. The great thing about fasting is that it connects our bodies and spirit. When people talk about ‘spirituality’ it can be very removed from the body. And Christianity is nothing if it is not about body and spirit together. Our spirituality always has to be embodied in physical practice – fasting is a great example of that;
3. Fasting and consumption. Fasting gives a deep perspective on our relationship with food. Fasting is a great antidote to food waste and it gives us solidarity with the hungry because giving something up makes us appreciate it all the more. The fast God desires, says the prophet Isaiah is all about justice, freeing people and lifting the yoke from the poor; (Isaiah 58). One way to live this out is to give away the amount we would have spent on the meal we’ve omitted to give; that’s what our Lent lunch on 29th March is about, as we give to the Bishop’s Lent Call for Zimbabwe.
Fasting and abstinence: what it is, why we do it and how we do it. Happy Lent!