In the central section of the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 6:1-18), Jesus gives instructions on how to practice the three basilar works of righteousness of Judaism: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. Of these three, fasting is the most difficult for us men and women today to understand. Every believer understands without difficulty that we should cultivate friendship with God through prayer and that solidarity with the poor is essential to the Christian life, but why fast?
According to the Old Testament, fasting expresses remorse for sin and attracts the Lord’s mercy (cf. 2Sam 12:16; Jon 3:5). The Law commands that every year, all the people fast on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) to ask for forgiveness for sins committed (Lev 23:26-32).
Jesus taught his disciples that they should not fast “while the bridegroom is with them” (Mt 9:14-15), but after Passover, Christians resumed the custom of fasting. However, the expiatory element, dominant in Judaism, gave way to the ascetic motivation. Askesis means “exercise”. In modern Greek, it denotes the kind of training one receives in a gymnasium. In this sense, fasting is part of training for spiritual purposes. It is about overcoming the tyrannies that shackle our freedom. Fasting should contribute to freeing our capacities for good.
It is curious that fasting, which has lost much of its relevance and significance among Christians in recent decades, has been taken up so enthusiastically by fitness enthusiasts. Different types of fasting are presented as ways to regain physical and mental balance. The web and social media are overflowing with information – not always scientifically proven – about the benefits of fasting.
How can we Christians regain a taste for fasting? The words of the prophet Isaiah can serve as a starting point: “Thus says the Lord] This is the fast that I desire: to loose the unjust chains, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to free the oppressed, to break every yoke, to break your bread with the hungry, to shelter the homeless poor, to cover those whom you see naked, and not to neglect your own” (Is 58:6-7). Fasting is not an end in itself, but an exercise with a view to healing our relationship with God, with others, with the environment and with our own bodies.
Any public appeal to fast should also be accompanied by warnings about its dangers: no one under the age of 18 or over the age of 65 should fast. Nor should anyone suffering from a medical condition that contraindicates fasting, e.g. diabetes. Young people who may be at risk of bulimia or anorexia should be especially warned. With these caveats in mind, skipping a meal or two can be very healthy for people who live in an environment of saturation of stimuli and consumption. The time freed up by not having to eat can be spent in silence and prayer. The money we save can be given in alms.
It is not easy to fast meaningfully today. Still, it is an age-old practice that has been cultivated not only by the three monotheistic religions, but also by many other spiritual traditions. If we think about it, it is still a small luxury. Fasting is freely choosing not to eat. Many cannot make this choice, as they are forced day after day not to eat enough. Through our voluntary deprivation, we can help regain our lost balance with ourselves and others, with Creation and the Creator, and become physically and emotionally aware that we depend on resources that many have been unfairly deprived of. If we avoid self-importance by practising fasting – as Jesus suggests in the Sermon on the Mount – it can be a useful and simple training – asceticism – to build a more fraternal world.
Fr. Alberto De Mingo Kaminouchi, CSsR