What Is a Real Fast?
And so the Season of Lent begins. It goes back to the early centuries when baptismal candidates fasted two or three days before their baptism on Easter Sunday. By the fourth century, it was variously observed throughout the empire by the Church for forty days before the Easter celebration, forty being taken from our Lord’s time in the wilderness, but also Moses’ time on the “the mountain of God” (Exodus 19-32) and Elijah’s trek across the desert (1 Kings 19:1-8). Later on, the first day of Lent was dubbed “Ash Wednesday” because of the imposition of ashes upon the forehead of the believer in a sign of mourning for sins and a desire to repent.
Lent is associated with self-examination, repentance, almsgiving, and fasting. In our day, fasting has all but fallen into disuse. It is a great pity. The early Church understood that fasting was the way to teach oneself self-control. And self-control in eating spilled over into self-control in other areas of life, such as holding the tongue and other sinful habits and impulses.
But, as the passage of Scripture above indicates, our Lord has another definition of fasting, one that includes but also goes beyond the surface. Fasting while one continues in sin is worthless. Fasting while one takes advantage of one’s neighbor is wicked. Fasting with the idea that one can thereby make God a debtor is abhorrent. No. Fasting that God delights in is fasting from sin, taking care of the poor and homeless, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and relieving the oppressed. Our God desires that we learn self-control and humility through self-denial and the millennia-old practice of fasting – a needed corrective for our compulsive society. But our God also desires that while we fast, we remember the poor. Indeed, fasting puts us in mind of those who are without, as we voluntarily go without. But let us not do so only in spirit. Let us see to it that as we volunteer to go without certain of life’s necessities that we likewise volunteer to see that others go with them.
Then shall we see wonderful promises fulfilled: “Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily … And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach.”