While I was conversing with someone recently about Christianity and the different Christian faith traditions, the subject of fasting came up. We discussed how different churches approach the practice, as well as how it was falling out of favor in the present age. Fasting has long a history in the Judeo-Christian tradition, indeed it was common and still is, in a lot of other cultures as well. Here is one piece that discusses fasting in the Old Testament.
Fasting is mentioned several times in the Gospels as well. Jesus fasted while he spent forty the forty days and nights in the desert. He also explained that his disciples should fast after he was gone, not while he was amongst them. Then Jesus taught his disciples about how they should act when they did fast:
16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
This reading from the Gospel of Matthew teaches us a lot about how we, as disciples of Jesus, are to approach fasting. It is not something we do to influence others. Rather, fasting is something that we do for ourselves and for God. Penance, in the Catholic tradition, is one example of what fasting can help achieve. For myself, as I think about fasting and how it has impacted my life, I realize that the biggest way that fasting has affected me is to teach me to appreciate what I have.
“First World Problem” has become a meme lately, and for good reason. We who live in developed countries do not regularly experience hunger or thirst. At least, we don’t unless we are at the very, very bottom of the social ladder. Otherwise, we may go our whole lives without knowing real hunger or dying thirst. This can make us complacent, and comfortable. In my opinion, complacency and comfort, or too much of them at least, is not good for our spiritual lives. When we want for nothing, God and matters of the Spirit seem to slip from our mind.
Experiencing hunger pains, if only occasionally, can help remind us of our blessings. Self-induced privation also serves to keep us focused on what really matters in our lives. When we go without basic necessities for even a short while, it puts in stark contrast our materialistic urges against the backdrop of what we truly need. The latest worldly invention loses much of its luster when we our empty stomach aches. It is this awareness of what is important and what is not important which gives meaning to the practice of fasting. What value is found in the latest IPad, or smart phone, or automobile, when you lack that which gives you Life? Nothing, of course. So as we empty our stomachs, let us fill our hearts instead, for in the words of our Savior:
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.