“Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full."
Jesus did not say if you fast... he said "whenever" you fast. He fully expected us to follow His example and fast. In fact, Jesus says, as recorded in St. Mark chapter 6, that some things may not be accomplished except by prayer & fasting.
So why don't all Christians fast?
I've had conversations with Christians from different denominations on this topic, even people from different belief systems. Did you know that atheists sometimes maintain a fast? Satanists are familiar with fasting, not only as a means of detoxing the body, but as a "spiritual enhancement" in connection with their rituals. Ramadan is one of the major fasting periods for Muslims.
So, with people of many faiths observing a fast, why does it seem illusory to many Christians?
"What is so different about the Christian fast? And, why should we deny ourselves anyway? I don't see how that gets me any closer to God", I hear people say.
"Then said Jesus unto His disciples, if any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. "
Fr. Olaf, our priest, has said on more than one occasion that the first sin in the garden of Eden centered around pleasing the palate. How fitting is it, then, for us to exert some struggle in disciplining this need, which for a lot of us becomes an indulgence every time we sit down to a meal.
Some things I've learned about fasting:
- Every day I eat way more than my body requires to function.
An average day for me includes a breakfast of fruit, bagel or a bowl of cold cereal. Lunch might be a sandwich (PB & J!) , granola bar, yogurt and water. Dinner may be a salad with spaghetti and bread. And, considering that I'm not an athlete needing to consume x amount of calories per day, my intake is more than I need.
- Fasting, for the Christian, must include a focus on prayer and reading the Scriptures. Otherwise, it's just a body detox or a requirement for blood work... or a recipe for grumpiness. Fasting includes mental exercise, a training of our thoughts and focused nourishment.
- Denying yourself palatal pleasures has spiritual rewards.
When spending a day in fasting and prayer, the intensity of the passions are subdued. Whether you are consumed with anger, fear, resentment, bitterness, pride, jealousy...all the many pleasures and weapons of demons are shattered by prayer & fasting.
- I feel better physically, mentally and spiritually when I fast.
Once I get over that hump, that intense desire for chocolate or carbs or my favorite burger from Wendy's, I know I'll make it. That intense desire DOES go away. When I feel hungry, I've started asking myself, "do you want to eat an apple? a carrot?" If not, then I'm not truly hungry, I just have a desire to please my palate.
-Fasting nourishes the new man.
St. Paul talks about the "new man" in his epistle to the Colossians (chapter 3) as compared to the "old man" and his deeds such as blasphemy, anger, wrath, and malice. When we continually indulge in everything the flesh desires, whether it be food, tv, sex, drugs, money... we are nourishing the old man and remain weak spiritual infants. Fasting, on the other hand, closes the door to passions so that the spiritual, or "new man" can become stronger.
-I've learned not to give up on a fast just because I slip up.
Occasionally giving into temptation is no reason to abandon a fast altogether. The saints fall down, they get up, they fall down, they get up...
We must always begin again.