Lent begins this month on February 26th. In German, Lent is called Fastenzeit. Fasting-time. Fasting is an act of bodily discipline. Not eating at the regular time brings an immediate response from the body. When we feel hunger, we remember how frail the ﬂesh is. This reminds us of our weakness, for hunger is but a little taste of death. Confronted with our weakness, we confess our need for a Saviour. So fasting is frequently part of repentance.
After the fall into sin, throughout the Old Testament, God’s people engaged in fasting. In the Scriptures, fasting is frequently accompanied by prayer as an act of worship and repentance. Consider the declaration of God through the Prophet Joel, read among us every Ash Wednesday: “Blow the trumpet in Zion, Consecrate a fast, Call a sacred assembly; Gather the people. Sanctify the congregation,” (Joel 2.15-16). In the New Testament, our Lord Himself fasted: “…and when He had fasted forty days and forty nights…” (Matt. 4.2). Moreover, our Lord does not say, “if you fast.” No he says, “when you fast,” (Matt. 6:16). Jesus assumes that his disciples will fast. So has the Christian Church observed fasting from the earliest days and throughout the centuries.
But why should we fast? Fasting is not something that the Church commands in order that men earn favour with God. Christians, however, have always seen fasting as a beneficial exercise of discipline over mind and body, indeed even a God-pleasing act. We have to think no further than our Catechism: fasting is “a fine outward training.” The Apology to the Augsburg Confession says that the purpose of fasting is to put “restraints on our flesh, lest satiety overcome us and render us complacent and lazy,” (Ap. XV:47, cf. XV:24). Luther concurs: “It is right to fast frequently in order to subdue and control the body. For when the stomach is full, the body does not serve for preaching, for praying, for studying, or for doing anything else that is good. Under such circumstances, God’s Word cannot remain. But one should not fast with a view to meriting something by it as by a good work,” (What Luther Says, 506). It is in this spirit, following the words of the Old and New Testaments, the example of Christ and His disciples, the tradition of the Church, and the Confessions of our Church, that we at St. Peter’s encourage the Christian to fast appropriately and as faith compels. But how do we do it?
Many people confuse fasting and abstinence. To fast is to be hungry; to abstain is give up food entirely. The traditional way to fast in the Church is a small snack for breakfast and lunch, with a simple dinner. Simple inexpensive foods (soups, vegetables, etc.) during fasting maintain the spirit of the fast. Although that’s the traditional way, there’s no law about it. For you, it may be as simple as skipping a meal once a week or to refrain from snacking! It is also appropriate to break your fast on March 25th and on Sundays after communion. (Sundays are never fast days, but we always rejoice in the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus!)
Now, fasting was never meant to be by itself. It is joined to the other two Lenten disciplines: almsgiving and prayer. An increased giving to the poor and an increased time of prayer can go hand in hand with fasting: by not eating so much, you actually have more money to give to others who have less than you, and by not fixing elaborate meals, you also have more time to spend in the Word and prayer. Our Church offers midweek services to help you spend more time in the Word and prayer. Further, by going hungry each day you experience solidarity with those many members of the human race who also go hungry each day.
Above all, we teach ourselves that the hunger behind all hungers is the hunger for God Himself. We can discipline our wayward flesh by not letting it dictate to us what and when to eat. Give it some thought and prayer and then rejoice in the truth that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Whatever the shape your fasting discipline takes, may you enjoy a blessed and holy Lent!
Rev. Matthew Fenn