This past Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, we entered the season of Lent. It’s not insignificant that Lent lasts for forty days, and not by accident. The number forty was evidently suggested by the forty days of fasting recorded in the scriptures: Moses, and Elijah, and especially Jesus himself (following his baptism) all fasted for forty days… which, in these days is quite counter-cultural. I suspect that if I were to stand on a street corner here in Harvard Square or, say, in Washington, D.C., and take a random survey asking people, “What comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘fast’?” I suspect that most people would say something about the pace of life these days: it is fast, probably too fast. They would talk about the word “fast” as an adjective of speed and not as a verb of abstinence. Curiously, there is a common etymology for both connotations of the word. “Going fast” – traveling or working fast, or having a fast connection to the internet – that kind of fast comes from the same etymological root as “fasting,” in the sense of abstaining from food. Our word “fast” comes from the Old English fæsten, which denoted “firm,” such as “to hold fast” to some decision or principle. “Hold fast.” We also may talk about a “a long, fast friend,” meaning someone who has been a secure friend, someone who has been tight with you – a steadfast friend. This word “fast” came to be a verb, applied to the abstinence of food, because of one’s “holding fast to a particular observance,” which was a firm resolve. This etymological development in English seems consistent to the way the scriptures speak about fasting. Fasting, not in the sense of eliminating something or denying yourself of some food, but fasting in the sense of holding firm, of fastening our resolve to a kind of discipline or practice. Fasting: more an affirmation of some principle rather than a renunciation of some desire.
So, for example, Jesus talks about fasting in the Sermon on the Mount directly in the context of his teaching about giving and praying. It’s as if there is a presumption that giving, and praying, and fasting are all a part of Christian devotion. In Matthew’s gospel, we hear Jesus’ saying, “ When you fast.…” [i] (Not “if,” but “when….”) He seems to make the assumption that people would hold firm to the practice of fasting, and what people actually needed was instruction on how to do it properly. What might fasting look like for you as you progress through this season of Lent?
- For some of us, fasting from food may be a grace of identification with so many in this world who do not choose to deny themselves of food. There may be some particular people whom God brings to your attention – those in our own nation or beyond – for whom your heart, your prayer, your intercession, your financial support opens up through your own discipline of fasting. …“For God so loves the world,” so much of which hungers. For some of us, fasting from food (or from some food or some kinds of food) may be meaningful.
- For some of us, fasting may be a way to temporarily abstain from what is new and rather to pray with what is now, already. To be satisfied – to be sated – or content with what is already there in our lives. This may be a kind of temporary detachment from the consumer culture that surrounds us and may give us a sense freedom or focus or perspective to steadfastly re-engage with our life. To fast from what is new, and to pray with thanksgiving for what is now, already, in our lives, praying with thanksgiving for the grace of contentment with our lives, for what we now have and where we now are.
- For some of us, fasting from food may symbolically and physiologically get us in touch with other “hungers” and “longings” and “thirstings” and “desirings” (to use language from the Psalms). Maybe your own hungers and longings and desirings; maybe someone else’s with whom you can identify. What do they crave? What do you crave? Fasting may clarify these hungers and focus your prayer for your own life or someone else whom you love.
- For some of us, either because we cannot fast from food for physiological or psychological reasons, or because our attachment to food isn’t as much the issue as our gorging on something else, the grace of fasting may have some other focus. For some of us it may be helpful throughout Lent to fast from worry, or to fast from regret, or to fast from revenge, or jealousy, or lust, or multi-tasking, or over-activity, or whatever else consumes us. We may find this season of Lent as a period of time to give up something that bloats our souls and consumes our attention. And we pray, Christ, for the grace of liberation.
You may find it a helpful discipline during Lent to fast in the sense of eliminating some food or preoccupation or distraction or habit so as to make space for some greater good, such as awareness or empathy or solidarity with God’s people, God’s causes in the troubled world that surrounds us. It may also be helpful to practice a fast in the sense of “holding fast” to a particular observance or discipline, which is not a renunciation but an affirmation. You may find an invitation in your soul to do something different, something more, with your time or your money. You may make some kind of daily resolve to practice an act of kindness or generosity with your spouse or partner, with one or more of your colleagues, or neighbors, or family members. Maybe to write a “love letter” every day. Not a business letter; not a letter of duty; but a love letter every day to someone whom you’re simply telling that they are remembered, that they matter, that you care for them, that you pray for them. Holding fast to that kind of lenten discipline.
I’ll suggest we pause here for a few moments. What about this notion of fasting? Of holding fast to a kind of practice during this season of Lent. Is there something that comes to mind that would be salubrious for your soul to give up? Is there something that comes to mind that would be salubrious for your soul to take on? to help you bring focus to God’s presence and God’s work in your own life and in the world around us?
John Cassian, a monk of the fifth century, writes how, in the tradition before Jesus, the observance of a fast was obligatory from time to time. Cassian writes that, since Jesus, fasting is a voluntary devotion, what he calls an “efficacious sign of detachment” from the world and an “attachment to God alone.” [ii] Fasting is a way of fastening on to what is most important, that first love, that ultimate desire, and it may help leave space within us to receive more of a taste of the eternal food Christ promises to us, and to our friends and to our neighbors, and to our enemies: the eternal food which will ultimately satisfy forever. [iii]
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