In March this year we enter the period of Lent, the period of preparation prior to Easter, 40 weeks (six weeks, not counting Sundays). And, many of us ‘give up’ something, if it be only chocolate, a somewhat modest fasting, for Lent! Therefore, it is worth our sharing some thoughts regarding fasting.
DEFINITION: Fasting is the deliberate and often prolonged abstinence from food, and sometimes drink, to seek a closer intimacy with God, as well as an act of petition, and as a spiritual observance.
NOTE: Fasting if taken to extremes can damage your health.
ROOTS FOR FASTING
In the Old Testament fasting is associated with mourning or as a religious act, particularly as an act of repentance, usually by prayer, for whatever has separated the individual from God, or to bring the person or the community to return to or be closer to God. There is also in the Old Testament fasting in preparation for war. War? Remember the stories of the Israelites facing the Philistines? Before each battle there was a time of fasting.
OBJECT OF FASTING
The object of the fasting being a calling on God’s direct assistance when the community was in need or great danger or there was an earnest desire of an individual to be right with God. (Food preparation and eating was a distraction. If you are not having to prepare food and eat, that is to have time to fast, then you can increasingly focus on the task in hand God has asked us to fulfil.) This earnest desire sentiment referred to carries over into the New Testament captured in the words of Jesus,
“only by prayer and fasting”
can demons be driven out. Demons? Thoughts, words and deeds conspiring to cause, and causing, hurt by nations and people.
Where do we stand in all this? Let’s not forget that we here at Agnew Road are members of the Protestant line of the western Christian Church. Therefore, we Protestants have a peculiar and particular to Protestants considered view on fasting. It’s worth our looking at how that came to be.
SALVATION BY FAITH
Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and other reformers
– criticised fasting as a purely external observance that can never gain a person salvation: salvation came by Faith alone not deeds such as engaging in fasting, wearing sack cloth & ashes etc.
Salvation:’ The deliverance from sin into a new life of righteousness that begins on earth, survives death, and is perfected with God in heaven.’
Faith: Faith is trusting in Jesus Christ alone for our salvation’.
Martin Luther believed that a Christian may choose to fast individually as a spiritual exercise to discipline their own self.
What’s meant by that word discipline? It means to regulate, bring order, impose control over, to exercise restraint, to be obedient to a belief/a truth.
However, for Lutherans the time and manner of fasting was to be left to the individual to fast or not fast. Luther, therefore, rejected the collective diet rules and prohibitions imposed by the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church.
Canon? It means belonging to the Bible. Are there biblical references to fasting? Yes, there are as suggested above in the Old Testament, and in the New Testament look at Mark 9:29 and Matthew 17:21. None suggest fasting as it developed over time in the Christian Church, Roman Catholic and Protestant, with (with a long list of) days designated as fasting days.
The Luther position was upheld by Lutheran churches, in that collective fasting was not officially enforced, whereas individual voluntary fasting was encouraged. (Certain modern Lutheran communities also advocate fasting during designated times such as Lent.)
Those of us of a certain age can remember our Roman Catholic friends hurrying to their church for (early-morning) Mass and carrying their ‘breakfast’ to be eaten after the service.
(Certainly the writer’s own father as a boy did carry his breakfast to Mass. (It’s told the breakfast was nibbled, if not eaten, before Mass.) There is uncertainty whether this discipline continues to today. Mentioning it here is almost certain to generate a reply from amongst our readers.)
Why the discipline of carrying your ‘breakfast’? This practice was considered an appropriate physical preparation for partaking of the Eucharist. You were certainly focused on the Mass and all it means, even if your tummy was rumbling.
Luther, the Protestant, argued fasting is not necessary for receiving the Sacrament. He wrote in his Small Catechism:
“Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training, but a person who has faith in these words,
‘given for you’ and
‘shed for you for the forgiveness of sin’
is really worthy and well prepared.”
John Calvin argued that instead of relying on designated fasting periods, the entire life of the religious should be
“tempered with frugality
(abstinence, self-denial) and
(moderation, soberness, seriousness, thoughtfulness)”
in such a way as to produce
“a sort of perpetual fasting”.
Calvin believed that collective public fasting could only be appropriate in times of calamity and grief for the community. Was he harking back to the Old Testament requirement to fast? Certainly it was a way of focusing the community in a collective and concentrated act of prayer with little time for eating and drinking.
AND AS ZWINGLISM
The Swiss Reformation of the “Third Reformer” Huldrych Zwingli went to an extreme demonstrating fasting was an ‘optional extra’. To make the point his followers throughout Lent engaged in an ostentatious public sausage-eating! (Swiss sausages are large! You’d have thought being Swiss they would have started on the triangular chocolate abstinence.). Zwingli himself did not partake of the sausage! (There’s more to the story than this and it is worth following up on.)
In general, fasting remains optional in most Protestant groups and is less popular than among other Christian denominations. However, in more recent years, many churches affected by liturgical renewal movements have begun to encourage fasting as part of Lent, and even sometimes Advent, two penitential seasons of the liturgical year. Some other Protestants consider fasting, usually accompanied by prayer, to be an important part of their personal spiritual experience, apart from any liturgical tradition.
Where are we at on this issue of fasting? Do we have to give up chocolate for Lent?
- We can chose to fast as a spiritual exercise at a time and manner of choice. (And that covers giving up chocolate for Lent!)
- Fasting can be an individual or collective act. (And that covers ‘all’ Christians focusing on Lent as an appropriate time.)
- Fasting, usually accompanied by prayer, is an important part of a personal spiritual experience. (And that means whenever and wherever we seek a closer intimacy with God.)
Note some Protestant denominations, particularly amongst Pentecostalists, impose very strict dietary requirements. Further, we should not overlook that most, if not all, the major religions engage in fasting.
For information and inspiration acknowledged with thanks to Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible published by William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, Cambridge, and An Approach to Christian Doctrine published by The Epworth Press.