What is Fasting good for?

What would you like to fast to?” This question is standard in school Lent worship services. Children and young people in particular are advised to use the 40 days of fasting to avoid certain things that adults consider harmful: sweets, computers, mobile phones, coke, ice cream, etc. Fasting is apparently used here as an educational tool for temperance and a healthy lifestyle. Fasting is also practiced in this way by adults. Lent appears as an auspicious opportunity to interrupt annoying, problematic, or unhealthy practices. In essence, it is about correcting or optimizing one’s own life. There is basically nothing to be said against such an understanding. It certainly has its merits to forego fatty food, alcohol, cigarettes, driving or watching television, or to consciously promote other things, to do more sport, to have more time for friends or to strengthen ecological awareness.

But why should one fast for religious reasons? In all religions, fasting appears as an element, there are reserved times and occasions when it is recommended or practiced collectively. In Christianity, the two long periods of fasting before Easter and before Christmas were established. Originally they both had the 40-day fast of Jesus in the desert as a model. The Advent season began after St. Martin’s Day on November 11th, the Easter fasting day on Ash Wednesday as it is today, although it was preceded by a „small“ fasting period that began three weeks before Ash Wednesday. One comes to forty days of fasting, since Sundays are not counted in the Catholic tradition. In addition, every Friday is a fast day in remembrance of the passion and death of Christ. The custom of at least not eating meat on this day stems from this tradition. Fasting breaks on them. The strictest days of fasting are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, when eating only one filling meal is recommended.

However, the actual religious meaning of fasting has been somewhat lost. Why should one fast if it is not primarily a question of personal lifestyle? So what is the “spiritual purpose” of fasting? The biblical and ecclesiastical tradition know (at least) three answers: fasting as an expression of penance, fasting as a means of asceticism and fasting as an aid to charity.

Such is the case with penance, the first goal of fasting. The word has almost disappeared from active vocabulary and has only survived in criminal law, for example when fines are imposed for traffic offences. Basically, penance is a means of righting wrongs. Penances are often symbolic substitute actions for things that can no longer be undone. It is like a scale: if a weight is put on the „debt“ side, another should be put on the „penitent side“ so that the scales come back into balance. Penance and punishment are often difficult to tell apart. At its core, penance is a voluntary performance, legally speaking, „below parole“, the punishment is a performance that I am obligated to by a higher authority. In this sense, repentance is understood biblically as an action to avert possible punishment from God for one’s own transgressions. One shows remorse, discernment and good will. The classic passage for this is the appearance of the prophet Jonah in Nineveh. He actually has the task of announcing the punishment of God for the crimes of its citizens, which in this case would mean the destruction of the city. However, the inhabitants of Nineveh anticipated this judgment, proclaiming a general fast and covering themselves with penitential robes. In a symbolic act they show their willingness to turn back and thus avert the impending judgment (Jon 3). Fasting, understood as a humble renunciation and as a restriction, can thus be understood as a sign that people place their destiny entirely in God’s hands and ask for forgiveness. In this sense, Jesus takes up the Jonah passage at one point in the Gospel to criticize the unwillingness of his contemporaries to convert to God (Luke 11:29ff.). Lent is therefore often started with singing. „Convert us, forgive our sins, give us your mercy anew, Lord“. Fasting, praying and giving alms, the classic triad of Lent is understood as a penance in which people express insight, remorse and willingness to convert in symbolic actions.

The second aspect, asceticism, is also difficult to understand. The thought of self-restraint for the sake of a higher religious goal is difficult to understand, especially for non-religious people. In a preface (a prayer in worship) during Lent it says: “By fasting the body you hold down sin, you lift up the spirit.” The core of the matter is, through fasting, but also e.g. through sexual abstinence, the spiritual to gather strength. The Christian theologian Tertullian (2nd century) recommends fasting for this reason. His argument: Eating, especially overeating, puts the body in a state of inertia. But a lazy man is much less sensitive to spiritual things. In addition, inertia causes negligence in other areas of life. The attentive Christian life thus requires, among other things, fasting for increased attentiveness in the spiritual life and a reduction in sinfulness in the worldly life. This form of fasting is well documented in the Bible, for example in the First Book of Kings, where a court hearing in which a divine judgment is to be passed is introduced by fasting. All those present should thus be in full possession of their spiritual powers (1 Kings 21). When the Israelites return to Jerusalem after the period of exile, the reading of the law begins with a fast of several days, in which forgiveness of sins is asked and attention to God’s word is to be increased (Neh. 9). In Acts 14:23, before the apostles appoint leaders to the congregation, they are chosen during a period of fasting and prayer. The fasting of Jesus in the desert can also be understood in this way. It is a time when renunciation opens an openness to conversation with God (and the fight against temptation), further underscored by the desert as „a place without distractions“.

The aspect of increased attention also plays a role in the third fasting motif. This is about raising awareness of the plight of the poor. Another preface puts it this way: Renunciation reduces selfishness in us and opens our hearts to the poor. Because your mercy impels us to share bread with them.” In this sense, almsgiving is an integral part of Lent. It is directly associated here with fasting. In a way that is easy to understand, this connection comes about because the fasting person experiences the situation of lack in his or her own body and thus gains a deeper understanding of the need of the poor. Furthermore, through his own restraint, he saves funds that he can now make available to others. Thirdly, however, there is a deeper meaning to this “social orientation” of fasting. In the great OT passage on fasting, the prophet Isaiah laments its sheer symbolism. He demands that the willingness to be converted should not only be expressed in ritual acts, but that fasting, the willingness to be converted, should instead be witnessed through good works. What good is a fast without ethical implications? In Isaiah 58:5-8 it says:

Is this the kind of fast I want, a day on which man humbles himself: when one hangs his head like a rush, when one covers oneself with sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast and a day pleasing to the Lord? Is not this a fast such as I desire: to loose the shackles of injustice, to remove the ropes of the yoke, to set the oppressed free, to break every yoke? Isn’t it breaking your bread to the hungry, taking the homeless poor into your house when you see a naked man, clothing him, and not separating yourself from your relatives? Then your light will burst forth like the dawn and your healing will prosper swiftly. Your righteousness goes before you, the glory of the LORD follows you.

From this point it is not far to the „works of mercy“ (Mt 25), which Jesus proclaimed as true worship and as the core of religious life. Here fasting breaks away from the idea of abstinence and instead becomes a question of charity.





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