15 February 2018
This mosaic shows Satan tempting Christ while he is fasting in the desert — offering him stones to turn into bread. It comes from the Chora Church in Constantinople. Parts of the church date to the 11th century. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
For the western church, yesterday — Ash Wednesday — marked the beginning of Lent, a penitential season in preparation for Easter. Basically patterned on the Gospel stories of Jesus’ fast and temptation in the desert (Mt. 4:1-11; Mk. 1:12-13 and Luke 4:1-13), Lent is usually counted as 40 days, sometimes with some creative calculations involved. For some of CNEWA’s partners who are Orthodox, the preparation for Easter this year does not begin until Monday 19 February, which is the beginning of the Great Fast.
Fasting is something common to almost all the religions of the world. It is connected often with asceticism — those practices which help the believer overcome the drives of the body and elevate the spirit to a higher reality. However, for members of monotheistic religions who believe in the one God — Judaism, Islam and Christianity — fasting plays a central and important role.
Again and again in the Hebrew Scriptures we find the Israelites proclaiming a fast to atone for some transgression or to avert some tragedy. The biblical book of the Prophet Joel revolves entirely around a period of fasting and repentance. It seems that a plague of locusts had attacked the land and was devastating the crops. Joel compares the locust to an army of countless warriors, devouring the land and hurling the people into a deadly famine. Joel exclaims “order a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly!” (1:13; 2:15) God calls the people to repent, “..come back to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning...” (2:12 ff.) Fasting and repentance are outward signs of an inner conversion to the justice which God demands (Isa 58:5-7). Fasting focuses the spirit and purifies prayer throughout the Hebrew Bible. The tradition continues to this day; for contemporary Jews the Holy Day of Yom Kippur, the Day of the Atonement, is a day of fasting, prayer and repentance.
For Muslims, fasting also plays a major role. The holy month of Ramadan is the month of fasting. For a lunar month, Muslims observe a total fast in which nothing enters the body. Whereas Christian fasting does not include water, Muslims go further; they abstain from food, water, smoking and sexual activity from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan. Unlike the case with Judaism and Christianity, Muslim fasting during the month of Ramadan does not have a strong penitential element. For Muslims, the fast of Ramadan is rather a joyful thing — an act of self-control, to be sure, but also primarily an act of worship to God.
Finally, in the New Testament fasting plays an important role and is connected for Christians with penance and prayer. Fasting here understandably has roots deep in the Hebrew tradition. And it is mentioned with surprising frequency. We tend to overlook how often people in the New Testament are presented as “praying and fasting.” It is so common that it is almost self-evident and often mentioned merely in passing. In Luke, the prophetess Anna spends her time in the Temple with “prayer and fasting” (Lk 2:37). In 2 Corinthians, Paul reminds his readers of the times he has spent praying and fasting (2 Cor 6:5; 11:27). Simply assuming that his followers will fast, Jesus warns them against making an outward show of their fasting (Mt. 6 passim). Although it is often overlooked, fasting in both the Old and New Testaments is closely connected with acts of charity and justice (see especially Isa 58).
For Christians, then, the fasting of Lent has several levels of meaning deeply rooted in the Scriptures. Outwardly fasting is an act of self-denial and self-discipline. But it is far more than just self-discipline. It is an act of stripping away the non-essential and focusing on what is central. It focuses inward, as the believer focuses on God and the act of God in Jesus Christ. And focusing inwardly on the saving act of God in Christ, the Christian is impelled to focus externally to bring about the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus — a kingdom of justice, peace and compassion.