Lent is the season for fasting. But, to be honest, most of us sort of shrug that off or snicker at the sheer absurdity of it all. After all, fasting is not in our nature. It doesn’t fit with our culture or our understanding. We want to believe in a God of abundance rather than a God that expects us to go without anything.
And yet, fasting is one of the most frequently mentioned ascetic practices in the Bible. The ancient Hebrews (and those of the Jewish tradition today) observe a special period of fasting as a sign of repentance on the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. Fasting was a sign of mourning or act of reparation for sins. It was both a way to express repentance as well as prepare oneself inwardly for receiving the necessary strength and grace to complete a mission of faithful service in God’s name. This was the reason that Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness–not to prove something but to prepare himself for a life of ministry. Fasting is neither abstinence from nor avoidance of, but a journey into a place that’s empty enough to fill with what God offers. Essentially, it is allowing oneself to die to self and rise again in Christ.
So, why is it so hard? Maybe it is not merely because we have a hard time going without (although I think that is a large part of it.) Maybe it is because we are expecting it to produce results that it is not meant to produce. Fasting is not meant to be manipulated in that way. It is meant to clear rather than produce. Think of fasting as response–a response to grief or sin, a response to graciousness or thankfulness, a response to a God who calls us out ourselves. But perhaps fasting is also about return, a return to our own self before we developed all these needs, before we stored everything away, a return to the self that God created–with proper perspective and an awareness of what basic needs actually are. If you look up the physiology of fasting, you will find that a body can survive for 40 days or more without eating (40 days? Hmmm! Isn’t THAT interesting?) In that time, depriving a body of food is not starvation but rather a burning of stored energy.
But I have to say that fasting has never been a huge part of my spiritual discipline. Being the good Methodist that I am, I have always maintained that I can “add” to my Lenten practice and do the same thing as fasting. I’m not real sure, though, that that is the case. Maybe, even metaphorically, I am only storing in excess, building and building for the future, trying to take as much of God’s abundance as I can and stash it away. Maybe in this 40 days of fasting, we are indeed called to let something go, to return to who we are before we stored it all away–the “leaner”, fuller, more focused self who knew that our basic daily needs would be met and that the abundance of God was really about allowing God to fill our needs and fill our lives and show us the way. And once our bodies and our minds and our souls (and our houses!) are cleared of all the stored excess, we will be open to what we need–the very breath of God who breathed life into us in the beginning and each and every day–if there’s room.
Grace and Peace on this Lenten Journey,