Fast is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “abstain from all or some kinds of food or drink, especially as a religious observance”. But what does it mean to fast? When do we fast, and for what reasons? Have you ever asked questions about the relevance of fasting in today’s society, particularly fasting motivated by faith or religion?
It is well known that despite the religious connotations fasting had, and still has in some areas, fasting nowadays is most commonly discussed in the context of weight loss, for example the 5:2 diet. Many people practice some form of fasting or abstinence from food for health reasons, such as cutting out coffee because of sleeplessness, or red meat because of heart problems, or refined sugar because of diabetes.
Traditionally, of course, advocating a fast was something that religion did. You performed a fast as some sort of penance, ritualised identification with something, preparation for a rite, or in order to focus the mind and pray more effectively. Fasting is an aspect of many faiths but since I am most familiar with Christianity, that is what I want to talk about.
To begin with the early church fasted twice a week, and a first century document writes, “you should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays”. The rules, regulations and advice about fasting has changed many times since then and now we have Lent, the period of fasting before Easter. But Lent lasts 40 days (or more if your count the Sundays too) and it would be medically impossible to properly and completely fast for that entire period. Since the Second Vatican Council, fasting has only been required in the Roman Catholic church on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The rest of Lent usually nowadays attracts desires to give up certain things, i.e. abstinence rather than fasting. This is where the “I’m giving up chocolate/I’m giving up wine/I’m giving up [whatever]” springs from.
Many people growing up in Catholic households – either Roman- or Anglo- – will remember “Fish Fridays”, where meat was avoided every Friday and replaced by fish or (as I recall) cheese & onion pie! But fish are often more expensive and more luxurious than meat nowadays and talk of eating a whole slice of cheese & onion pie can send dieticians and doctors into apoplexy about the dangers of eating that much saturated fat. Today, Good Friday, will see me and my family eating fish for our dinner. It’s the one day of the year when we follow the “Fish Friday” traditions of our parents and grandparents generations.
Despite the best efforts of most of us, anyone who struggles with being overweight or unfit will no doubt find that their spiritual reasons for fasting are paralleled or overshadowed by some thoughts about health and weight loss. No one should or probably would seriously consider a fast made up purely of sugar and water, for example, at least not for any great length of time, especially no one who has had weight loss problems or threats of diabetes.
So, do we, as 21st century Christians, still fast? If so, why do we do it, and what do we get from it? Are we, as a school child said to our minister not long ago, only fasting or abstaining during lent so that we can lose weight? And do we pick our Lenten fast (if indeed we follow one) with weight loss somewhere in our mind or with other, loftier or more spiritual reasons? Would we ever follow a fast that would be of clear detriment to our long term physical health – and if not, why not? After all many early strict religious orders fasted to very extreme points – so what stops us doing this now?
Health and happiness are gifts. Good food, lovingly prepared, is a gift. Warm homes, roofs over our heads, bin men to collect rubbish and tap water that’s safe to drink, are all gifts. And knowledge of how food and drink affects our health is also a gift. I would argue that the original spiritual nature of fasting has largely been superseded by health concerns, concerns which, unless we have grown up our entire lives without any access to the modern world and the information source that is Google, cannot be forgotten or overlooked.
This does not mean that I would eat meat today – I don’t think I could bare to – but I’m not going to lie to myself and pretend that my abstinence is somehow a huge spiritual demonstration or a cast-iron requirement of my faith. No matter whether I eat fish or beef or lamb or whatever other food today, I’ll still be welcome in my church on Sunday, and I’ll still be able to pray and read the Bible this afternoon. My avoiding meat each and every Good Friday is more of a recognition that this was how my ancestors marked the day of Christ’s passion, and I follow the tradition more because of this recognition than anything else.