You Call That Fasting? The Season Of Amazing Grace
In Lent we are called to fast—but do we fast well? FR RALPH DE HAHN reflects on the pitfalls and the graces of fasting.
Many of the great spiritual writers tell us that when our acts of worship do not produce tangible results, we have failed to grasp the significance and practice of fasting—not only from delicious foods but, more so, from our deep-seated, selfish mannerisms and pet pleasures.
They emphasise it is a spiritual cleansing of the heart, for “the heart is more devious than any other thing, perverse too; who can pierce its secrets?” as the prophet Jeremiah asked (17:9).
It is to be a spiritual cleansing, not boastful but prayerful, and should prove a humbling experience as was the case with King David whom God chose as “a man after my own heart” (1 Sam 13:14; Acts 13:22).
Later David would declare: “See I humble myself with fasting” (Ps 35:13).
The disciple James writes that God wants us for himself alone: “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will lift you up”(4:10).
The apostle Paul, after being struck from his horse and blinded, fasted for three days, waiting on God to reveal his will (Acts 9:6-9).
Our Spiritual Growth
It is a spiritual truth that fasting in humility and prayer is a most effective tool for Christian growth.
The prophet Isaiah is deeply grieved when he condemns the outward display of fasting among the Pharisees and the people of Israel.
He demands not mere exterior actions and rituals but also a radical change of heart, seeking a closer union with the Father Creator.
Isaiah is ruthless as he cries: “Look, you quarrel and squabble when you fast…fasting like yours will never make your voice heard on high, hanging your heads like a reed, lying down on sackcloth and ashes!”
Then he gets to the essentials: “Is that what you call fasting? Rather break unjust fetters, let the oppressed go free, share your bread with the hungry, shelter the homeless poor, clothe the man who is naked.”
Then, the prophet says, “will your light shine in the darkness…and your integrity will go before you” (Isa 58).
We also have that beautiful spirit of purification offered by Ezekiel: “I shall cleanse you of all your defilement and your false idols, and shall give you a new heart.
“I shall remove your heart of stone…and give you a heart of flesh and put a new spirit in you” (Ez 36:25–30).
All this speaks eloquently of spiritual fasting.
Lost meaning of Lent
Our materialistic society has somewhat lost the deeper meaning of Lent and the choice to fast. It definitely tries to avoid all spiritual realities.
We are liturgically correct with our purple coverings and lovely penitential hymns—but then we continue to judge our true worth as defined only by what we possess and not by what we are or by what we do.
Power like this gives an illusory sense of being a somebody because one possesses something. We know that injustice feeds on such ideas.
Lent offers a marvellous opportunity to pause over 40 days and take a look inside; it is a season of amazing grace to those who are well disposed, one prepared to confess one’s sinfulness and who stands in need of a saviour.
And the practice of fasting does help us realise just how much we need a saviour!
It is a time to disengage heart and mind from a multiplicity of secondary things and to seek the true God and Father, thus bypassing all our fantasies and disfiguring images of God.
We seek because we have been found; and still seek that we may find!
The beautiful work of Rembrandt of the father rushing forth to embrace his prodigal son presents the Father image we need to embrace. For the Father is ever waiting with open arms.
Go back to the Source
The Lenten fast is an excellent opportunity for fruitful self-examination. Going forward does demand going back to our Source, and Jesus is the only way to the Father.
Our external acts of self-denial—like giving up smoking, alcohol, sugar and so on—may give some satisfaction, but the prophets and also Jesus himself ask us to gaze inside for a change of heart.
That means the desire for a cleansing; a transformation, aided only by grace; an honest assessment of our behaviour in loving, in forgiving others, in humility, in our speech, our habit of swearing, using God’s name, self-righteousness, stubbornness, our rash judgments, our uncontrollable anger, our reverence in adoration and prayer, and so many irritating failures. That is the true call for fasting.
Easy? No way. We must give God the opportunity to work in us, and through us.
So we have Lent. Approaching this challenge in faith, and utterly dependent on his grace and the power of the Spirit, we may find the light blinding.
It may hurt at first, but soon it will heal—and will speak to us.
“Then will your light shine like the dawn and your wounds be quickly healed over” (Isa 58).