Today is Ash Wednesday, so I will fast, eating nothing until 6:00pm. I will fast again on Good Friday - both days are designated as fast days in the Book of Common Prayer. Fasting is an important part of religious observance, and also a preparation ritual, for those going into battle or preparing for a significant event. Christians are preparing for Holy Week and Easter during this most important season.
In seems like fasting has fallen out of favor culturally, and sometimes I read about how it is 'dangerous' or we should not go for a period of time without eating. It is not easy, and it is uncomfortable, but for healthy adults it is not too difficult, and may have physical health benefits. Most of us are routinely instructed to fast for medical tests or procedures. This is no different, except it is for spiritual health reasons.
It is also an important part of our Christian practice, especially in a culture where we are surrounded by an over-indulgence of food, and where the word 'sin' is so often heard in conjunction with eating ('it's sinfully delicious'). Fasting, then, is countercultural in both its focus and observance. Here's what I learn, year after year:
I am enormously blessed with abundance, even over- abundance. It is an amazing gift to wake up every day and be able to eat almost anything my heart desires. In a world where so many go hungry, I can eat whenever and whatever I choose. Denying myself food for a mere 20 or so hours a week reminds me of the privilege I live with, my gratitude for that privilege, and my responsibility to care for others who live in need.
I am dependent upon others. Despite the fact that I can and do purchase and prepare food several times a day, for myself and others, fasting reminds me that all my sustenance, and indeed my very life, is dependent upon the toil of others. I literally cannot live without those who grow and sell and prepare and clean up after my eating. Not eating for one day a week keeps me ever mindful, and grateful for this fact.
I am dependent upon God. It is hard to fast. I get hungry and cranky and light-headed. And yet, doing so reminds me of how well my healthy body does function, how strong I am, and how everything I am, and my whole life, are in the hands of God. God created me, sustains me, and leads me through. Fasting gives me visceral respect and awareness of this as I struggle with it, and in fact gives me an awareness of my mortality, as well.
I am distracted and cluttered a lot of the time. I tend to eat on the run. I am forever packing some nuts or a bagel for when I know I won't have time for a meal. I often substitute coffee for food. Fasting slows me down. Being hungry focuses me on one task a time, it helps me clarify what I have energy for and what I don't, and it helps me prioritize what needs to be done today and what can wait. It gives me a lot of breathing room. And it helps me really see and feel and taste and appreciate my food when I break my fast.
I am hungry for more. I don't know about you, but I tend to eat not just when I am hungry, but also when I am bored, frustrated, sad, angry and happy. Going without food for a day sharpens my hunger for good food, and it also sharpens my awareness of the other longings I sometimes mask by eating. There is deep hunger in my soul for beauty, quiet, adventure and love. I really get to know this when I fast.
Fasting clears a path in our souls that helps us hear God's voice. People fast in the Bible in times of repentance, in times of mourning, in times of preparation. Jesus, of course, fasted for 40 days at the beginning of his ministry. What about you? What are you hungry for? What are you willing to find out in these next 40 days?