Editor’s note: This column was originally published in 2009.
This time of the year I often hear, “What are you giving up for Lent?” Lent is the 40 days (not including Sundays), before Easter. During Lent we prepare ourselves for Easter by reading scripture, praying and fasting. Fasting is giving up something – a habit, a treasure, an indulgence – for the sake of drawing near to God.
Several years ago, I read that Roman Catholic bishops in Italy have encouraged people to give up high tech devices for Lent, like the Internet, TV, and iPods. I heard someone quoted as saying that the fast of these devices was to show penitence for sins. So what does giving up texting have to do with sorrow about our sins? In other words, why do we fast?
There are several reasons why we fast. We fast out of sorrow for our sins. We fast to strip away those influences that distract us from God and to learn a better way of living.
And we fast to teach ourselves that we can deprive ourselves for the sake of following our Lord.
The first kind of fast is a fast of penitence. During Lent we are reminded of our sinful nature. We have all wandered far from God and God’s purpose for our lives. During Lent we are reminded of this and we hear God’s call to return to the life he calls us to live. When we recognize our sin, we realize our sin has grieved God and we desire to show our sorrow for this grief that we have caused. When we fast for penitence, we deprive ourselves of something we enjoy to demonstrate to God our sorrow for our sins. This is probably the oldest meaning of fasting and is even found in the Old Testament.
But fasting has other uses. Fasting is a tool of change. When we fast we can give up things we need to stop. Maybe it’s a practice that is an abuse of our body, which is a gift from God. An example would be smoking. Maybe it’s an action that separates us from God, like using profanity. Maybe it’s a practice that has gotten obsessive and is starting to become so important it could become an idol – something that takes God’s place in life. When we fast, we set aside those influences in life that distract us from God and we turn to a better way of living.
This is a fast we might consider continuing after Lent has ended.
Fasting can also be discipline. I do not mean discipline as punishment. Rather I mean discipline as teaching. In his Gospels, Christ calls us to live a life of self giving. Often this way of life calls for sacrifice and self denial. It can be a difficult way of life. At first the demands of this life may seem impossible. But through fasting, we can practice self denial and we can learn that we can sacrifice for the sake of following our Lord. For example, by denying yourself sweets during Lent, you may learn to put your own desires aside for the sake of following Christ. Later when you read in the Bible we are called to give to the poor, from the previous experience, you will have learned to put your own desires aside for the sake of serving Christ. This will give you the strength and determination to use your money not for your own wants but for others’ needs.
Fasting is not about earning credit with God. Instead it is about being changed in such a way that we return to a full and loving relationship with God. This is why we fast.
The Rev. Sally Franklin is the Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, at 501 Pine St. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.