This year Easter is coming early, which means Lent is coming so quickly it is only a couple of weeks away - Ash Wednesday is on the 10th of February! Lent is traditionally a time of repentance where we consider our spiritual lives as we look forward to a special remembrance Jesus dying for our sins on the cross and rising to new life. For centuries Christians have fasted during Lent to prepare themselves for the joy of Easter. At the Reformation the Church of England kept fasting for the forty days of Lent. Why did the Church of England keep fasting for Lent? Why did early Christians start forty days of fasting in the first place?
Because Jesus told us to.
In Matthew 6.16-17 Jesus doesn’t say “if you fast” but rather “when you fast”. Jesus expected all of His followers to fast, including you and me. To not fast is to disobey God. To not fast is, well, sin.
But what is fasting? Whilst it is popular these days to ‘take something up’ rather than ‘give something up’ that is really not Biblical fasting. In the Bible fasting is the voluntary abstinence from food for spiritual purposes. Some people take this principle of voluntary abstaining from food and extend it to the giving up things like mobile phones, social media, or spending time around people etc. Whilst this ‘wider’ sense of fasting is common today, and does have value, we must remember that it is fasting from food which the Bible calls on all Christians to do. Some biblical fasting was from all food but not water (like Jesus in the desert given it doesn’t mention his thirst but only hunger), some was from just certain kinds of food (like Daniel whilst in Babylon or John the Baptist), some fasting was absolute such as when Esther called on her people to neither eat nor drink for three days or when Paul likewise abstained from all food and drink for the three days he was blind, Some fasting was private, other fasting was a whole congregation together, and other fasting was a national event.
When we fast from food it reminds us of how much we rely on God each day to survive, it gives our prayers a greater urgency, and focusses the mind on spiritual things. As Christians we are called to “deny yourselves, take up your cross daily, and follow [Jesus]” (Luke 9.23-24), the practice of denying ourselves food is a powerful experience and reminder of this. Whilst fasting does not somehow guarantee God will answer our prayers the Bible makes clear fasting plays some role in our prayers being heard and answered. God uses fasting. God uses people who fast.
This Lent I would encourage all who can to fast from food, whether from meat or alcohol like Daniel, or eating only certain foods like John the Baptist, or from food during daylight hours - you could fast for all forty days or maybe just one day each week. If you do fast, the most important thing is this: “Whenever you fast, don't be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They've got their reward! But when you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face,so that you don't show your fasting to people but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “ (Matthew 16.16-18)
Revd Adam Young (From the February Newsletter of Emmanuel Church, Saltburn-by-the-Sea)