A particular word in the lenten vocabulary of the church has already gotten a good deal of front-page press during the last few weeks. The word is “fast,” our lenten fast. The word “fast” has appeared repeatedly in the context of the Winter Olympics: going fast” – skiing or skating or bobsledding fast. This word “fast” actually comes from the same etymological root as “fasting,” in the sense of abstaining from food, such as the spiritual practice of some people today, Ash Wednesday, and during the season of Lent. Our English word “fast” comes from the Old English fæsten, which means “firm,” such as “to hold fast” to some decision or principle. Hold fast. You 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: to fast. The focus of fasting is not on eliminating something or denying yourself of something, but gaining something. Fasting is to hold firm to a discipline or resolve as a way to move through a day or a season with the same single-minded focus as a skier who is moving down a slope: fast. The focus of fasting is about gaining something… fast!
So, for example, Jesus talks about fasting in the Sermon on the Mount in the context of his teaching about giving and praying. He assumes that giving, praying and fasting are all a part of Christian devotion. We have no more reason to exclude fasting from Jesus’ teaching than we do giving and praying. In Matthew’s gospel, we hear Jesus’ saying, “ When you fast.…” iHe assumes that people would hold firm to the practice of fasting; needed was instruction on how to do it properly since fasting was a common practice in his day. (For example the gospels recall an encounter that Jesus has with a Pharisee who boasts, “I fast twice a week…” Pharisees typically fasted on Mondays and Thursdays because those were market days and so there would be bigger audiences to see and admire them because of their penitential dress and the ashes on their face.ii) In the gospels, Jesus does not command us to fast, but he does seem to assume that prevailing the practice of fasting would go on, but with new meaning.
Now if you’ll bear with me, I’ll pick up on this connection between the spiritual practice of “fasting” and the Olympic sense of “going fast.”iii According to physiologists, the functioning of the digestion depends less on the brain than on hormonal mechanisms in the body. During a fast from food, the digestive system gets a rest. About ten hours after a meal, the contractions stop and the feeling of hunger often disappears; five or six hours later the glucose stops coming directly from the intestines and begins to produce itself from the reserve of glycogen contained in the liver. From then on, the body works on itself in a closed circuit, becoming itself the source of the energy it uses. Fasting is a kind of temporary physiological and spiritual detachment, and it’s as salubrious for the body as for the soul. Eating three times a day (or more) means taking on, almost without respite, the work of rather than appropriating what is already there. Incessant consumption can take as much a toll on the body as it does on the soul. For an Olympian, “going fast” is to firmly, strongly, vigorously rid oneself of any “drag,” to be lighter, and more energized and more focused and efficient.
Some of us today fast from food. What meaning we may apply to this discipline is ours to make. For some of us, fasting may be a particularly meaningful practice throughout the season of Lent.
- Fasting may be a way to appropriate the incarnation of Christ: to pray “inside our bodies” how Christ’s presence and provision is already there. Fasting may be a way for us to temporarily abstain from what is new and rather to pray with what is now. It’s to be satisfied – to be sated – with what is already there, to be content. This is a kind of temporary detachment from the consumer culture that surrounds us, and may give us a sense freedom or focus to steadfastly discover what is most important for us now.
- For some of us, fasting 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 our attention – those in our own culture or beyond – for whom our hearts, our prayers, our intercession open through our own discipline of fasting. …“For God so loves the world,” so much of which hungers for food, or hungers for justice or peace…
- For some of us this temporary respite from food may symbolically and physiologically get you in touch with other “hungers” and “longings” and “thiristings” and “desirings” (maybe your own; maybe someone else’s, with whom you can identify). What do you crave? Fasting may clarify your hungers and give focus to your prayer.
- For some of us, the discipline of fasting may have some other focus. It may be helpful for you to fast from worry, or from regret, or from revenge, or jealousy, or lust, or multi-tasking, or whatever else stuffs you. You may find this season of Lent (called a season of preparation) as a contained period of time to give up something that bloats your soul and consumes your attention. You pray for the grace of liberation.
John Cassian, a monk of the fifth century, writes how under the Old Law, fasting was obligatory. Now fasting is a voluntary devotion, an “efficacious sign of detachment” from the world and an “attachment to God alone.”iv Fasting is a way of fastening on to what is most important, that most important thing, your ultimate desire. Fasting may help leave space within your soul to taste the eternal food Christ promises, food which will satisfy forever.v “Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”vi
i Matthew 6:16-25f.
ii Luke 18:12f.
iii Insight drawn from To Love Fasting; The Monastic Experience by Adalbert de Vogűe, monk of La Pierre-qui-Vire, trans. Jean Baptist Hasbrouck, OCSO; (Petersham: St. Bede’s Publications).
iv Ibid, pp. 64-65.
v John 6:27; 6:55f.
vi Isaiah 40:31.
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