What is the Purpose of Fasting?

Fasting is seen as normative to being a Christian as (and must be connected to) prayer and ministry, sharing of resources with those in need. Christ says “when you fast” (Matthew 6: 16, 17), not “if you fast.” It must be part of and laced within the overall Christian life (see Isaiah 58: 1 – 13). It can include abstinence from food(s), sexual intimacy in marriage at times, etc (it goes without saying that there should be abstinence from all sinful behaviors, regardless if a “fast day” or not). Fasting is both personal and communal. On the personal level, it would be about one’s repentance from sin (I Samuel 7: 6; Nehemiah 9: 1, 2; the Ninevites-Jonah 3: 5 – 10), mourning and/or for the purpose of intercession (Daniel 9: 2), usually for someone or a situation to clarify and uncover God’s will (e.g. Moses Exodus 24: 18/Deuteronomy 9: 9, 18; Elijah-I Kings 19: 8; Daniel 10: 2, 3; Jesus -Matthew 4: 2/Mark 1; 12, 13; Luke 4: 1, 2), even in reading of the Scriptures (Jeremiah 36: 6).

Fasting as a Communal Act

Fasting was about the Eucharistic Community as a whole, reflecting the lifestyle of the Church and its member. Except for health reasons, it was as much coupled to participation and membership in the Community as it was to prayer and ministry. Just as celibacy reflects the lifestyle pattern of each member of a monastery, so fasting from food (or abstinence from certain foods), like its corporate prayer and ministries, reflects the whole of the Church and each member. That it is a lifestyle pattern of those devoted to the Lord is clear from Scripture (the whole of Israel-Joel 1: 14; Disciples of John the Baptist-Matthew 9: 14; the disciples of Jesus-Mark 2: 20; Cornelius-Acts 10: 30; St Paul –II Corinthians 6: 5; 11: 27). By the last half of the first century, documents (the Didache) show Christians were regularly fasting on Wednesdays (remembering Judas’ selling of Christ) and Fridays (remembering His crucifixion). Originally this was a complete fast from solid foods from the night before through to dinner the next evening. The extra food from fasting then was given to the poor and destitute. Fasting is not only about ourselves, but also about reaching out to others and ultimately about God’s own reaching out to us.

Encounter with/revelation of God…

Fasting was done as preparation for encountering God and receiving His revelation. It was to taste of God’s own hunger for us and to help us understand that the only true satisfaction is that which reflects the Lord as the ultimate fulfillment of the soul’s desire. This is seen in the Exodus story where, after being rescued from the slavery of Egypt, the Israelites are brought to Mount Sinai to meet and hear the Word of the Lord Himself where married couples fasted from sexual intimacy for a short period of time (Exodus 19: 15; cf. I Corinthians 7: 5 – “by common agreement”). Food, like intimacy in marriage, are given by God, not as ends unto themselves, but to be a means of communion rather than to satisfy a self centered existence as happened to Adam and Eve with the fruit (where eating became a way of turning inward, away from God and each other). It is fasting that prepares for our own and others encounter with the Lord (why the custom of a fast period of a few hours before Communion exists).

The Lenten (“Spring”) Fast

Lent (Latin for “Springtime”) was the period developed as the final stage of preparation for the catechumens who were to be membered into the Church at Pascha. The Community as a whole would fast and pray for not only the catechumens (who were, themselves, also fasting) and their repentance, rebirth, healing and growth, but for themselves to truly be an environment that facilitates their (the catechumens) integration into the very life of Christ Himself constituted and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Fasting in this way, connected with prayer and service, was like parents preparing for the birth or adoption of a new child. Parents not only pray for their children, but also that they themselves be effective and loving, and repenting when they are not. This kind of fasting then also is evangelistic (this may be said of the Christmas/Theophany Fast when many ancient Churches did baptisms as well as at Pascha). For centuries Pascha was believed to be the time when the Parousia (aka. the 2nd Coming/Last Judgment) would take place, completing what Christ had inaugurated with His resurrection. Baptism was seen as participating in His death and resurrection (what more powerful way than to celebrate the Sacrament than at Pascha) bringing us through our own deaths to our own Resurrection. If we knew that the Parousia might take place at Pascha, completing our Resurrection (a transformation of our humanity into full union with God) how would we prepare? How much would we hold onto and not share/make available to the Church from our resources? How desirous would we be to share the Good news with others? How hungry are we for the Resurrection of Christ? Our own Resurrection? The Resurrection of others? And of the whole of creation?