“The Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days… (Mk 1:12-13)”
The practice of fasting is as old as humanity itself.
People from different cultures and religions have included fasting in their customs and traditions. The Brahmin and gurus of Hindu tradition fast and mortify their bodies. The Buddhist monks are known to abstain from eating any meat and fast regularly. Our Muslim brothers and sisters fast even from drinking water from before the dawn to sunset during the month of Ramadan.
Scientists have proven that fasting has a lot of health benefits. People refrain themselves from taking food and water for certain period for different reasons and motives. Some fast to subdue the carnal desires and discipline themselves. Others find it as a way to attain wisdom and enlightenment. The others are to achieve healthy and balanced lives. Others still are required to fast as medical requirements or tests.
I remember once my physician-friend requires me to fast for 6 to 8 hours before my blood was extracted for the laboratory examination.
As we enter the liturgical season of Lent, the Church instructs us to do fast and abstinence, and intensify our prayer. Yet, compared to other traditions, our fasting is considered to be very light. We are only required to fast for two days, the Ash Wednesday and the Good Friday. The way we fast also is not that difficult. We are enjoined to take only one full meal within the day.
Yet, why do we, Christians, have to fast?
Why does the Church want us to commit ourselves to this ancient practice?
One reason is we follow the example of the great prophets before us. Moses fasts for 40 days before he receives the Law from God in the mount of Sinai (Exo 34:28). Elijah on his part fasts from food when he walks 40 days to see God in the mount of Horeb (1 King 19:8). Finally, Jesus Himself goes to the desert and fasts for 40 days in the desert just before He commences His public ministry. Why do these great persons in our faith fast? If we carefully notice, Moses and Elijah fast because they prepare themselves to see the Lord.
Like them, our fasting, as simple as they may be, is linked fundamentally to our journey towards God. Often we are so proud of ourselves, feeling self-sufficient because we have achieved and accumulated a lot in our lives. Fasting makes us hunger and weak, and once again we are getting in touch with our vulnerability as human beings. It reminds us our finitude. Yet, when we feel powerless, it is the time when we realize our radical dependence on God, our true strength. Indeed being truly human is being truly connected to God, the source of our humanity and life.
Fasting becomes a good means to purify our hearts to see God because only “the pure hearts can see the Lord (Mat 5:8).”
We also observe that Moses, Elijah, and Jesus fast just before they begin their big missions. Moses receives the Law and teaches it to the Israelites. Elijah is to anoint Hazael as a king of Aram, Jehu as a king of Israel, and Elisha as a prophet. Jesus is to begin His public ministry that will lead Him to the cross and resurrection, our salvation. Our fasting prepares us for our true mission as Christians.
Often, we are busy with so many things, and fasting helps us to re-orient and re-focus ourselves on the mission God has given us. Reminded of our limited time here on earth, what are things that are truly important in our lives? Reminded of our mortal body, have we given enough time and effort to our missions? Is our fasting bringing us closer to God and our mission?