Friday, 12 February 2016

Fasting and Abstinence

The Christian way of prayer recommends simplicity and economy in words, words that are considered, emerging from inner stillness and emptiness attained by suitable preparation of mind, heart. All kinds of meditative technique may be used beneficially to this end, yet the scriptures have little to say directly about them. It does, on the other hand, have a great deal to say about preparation of the body. 

Fasting is the voluntary limitation of food intake, going without meals, with various degrees of severity. It is not required of the young, the aged or the infirm, but on those whose lives are charged with activity for whatever reason. Abstinence is the selective renunciation of certain kinds of food, (mainly meat, fish, eggs, cheese), luxuries or even activities like parties or sexual intercourse. Both exercise discipline over desire and appetites. A moral effort is made to reduce dependency upon comforting pleasure, as this can be a way of avoiding the need to face things that are not right about our lives. 
Fasting and abstinence are associated with intense seriousness by all religions in relation to prayer. The intention is to free space within the self where God can be encountered without distraction from relatively trivial needs, feelings and activities. In Jewish tradition fasting has been practised with prayer since ancient times, in preparation for some great festivity, and as an expression of penitential sorrow and grief for sin committed. Even so, this kind of extra self-discipline is meant to be undertaken with due control, not taken to excess. The dietary laws of the Jewish Torah and rules for fasting and abstinence are inter-related, seen as the practical dimension of a wholesome life of prayer and worship. 

Christian use of prayer and fasting is derived from Jewish practice adapted to a wider range of social and cultural settings. Traditionally, the weekdays of Lent were days of abstinence, with occasions for fasting recommended on Wednesdays and on Fridays, the day each week when the crucifixion of Jesus is particularly remembered in devotional prayer. The full forty day fast has been practised in some communities since ancient times, remembering the testing sojourn of Jesus in the wilderness. Islam's forty day fasting season during Ramadhan is derived from the practise of Christian ascetics in the Arabian peninsula before the rise of the prophet Muhammad.

Readings from the Jewish prophets used in the initial days of Lent are notable for their critique of decadent religiosity, in the behaviour of those whose exercises in piety are not accompanied the practice of social justice as required by the Torah, particularly in relation to treatment of the poor and powerless. 

Isaiah's voice is echoed by other prophets, and by the teaching of Jesus. 

“In the day of your fast you find pleasure and exploit all your labourers. Indeed you fast for strife and debate, and to strike with the fist of wickedness. You will not fast as you do this day. To make your voice heard on high. Is it a fast that I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord?"  (Is 58:3b-5)

“Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free, And that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; When you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh?" (Is 58:6-7)

Hunger and thirst, as an expression of longing for God, cannot be separated from hunger and thirst to see social justice done. 

'My soul yearns for you in the night; in the morning my spirit longs for you. When your judgements come upon the earth, the people of the world learn righteousness.' (Psalm 26:9) 

Mary's song of praise reminds us that God does answer prayer.

'He fills the hungry with good things, but the rich he has sent empty away' (Luke 1:53)

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