-Dr Rosemary Varghese
The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast- Matthew 9:15
Lenten fasts are losing their currency and significance in the context of the present generation. The Church has eased out the mandatory Lenten fast which was strictly observed for forty/ fifty days a few decades ago. Now this has been reduced to two days that mark the beginning and end of the Lenten season, namely Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. In this context it is important to understand the relevance of fasting as a social and religious tool in different contexts, and then focus on what Jesus Christ achieved as He undertook His forty-day fast in the desert.
Fasting in different contexts
Fasting is not exclusive to a particular religion. In India, other than Christians, both Hindus and Muslims have their days and periods of fasting through which they seek to come into closer spiritual union with their God. Beyond religion, we often find this instrument of self-discipline being used in social and political contexts, in order to draw public attention to some form of social misconduct or injustice. Mahatma Gandhi popularized this as a form of non-violent protest against the British, and this proved to be the double-edged sword that played a vital role during the freedom struggle.
Hunger strikes for public issues
From then on, hunger strikes have been in regular use across India. In recent times, public protests through hunger strikes have also penetrated the bastions of the Catholic Church in South India within the Syro-Malabar community. In 2018, Kerala witnessed the protest and hunger strike of nuns demanding the arrest of an accused Bishop. At present , we find ourselves in the midst of another such protest by the priests and laity belonging to the Syro-Malabar Ernakulam-Angamaly diocese in Kerala concerning a synodal decision on liturgical rites.
Reasons for fasting in the Old Testament
Having discussed the prevalence of fasting in varying contexts, we now turn our attention to what the Bible says about this age-old tradition. The Old Testament gives us a number of examples of stringent measures followed by great kings during fasts. King David humbled himself before the Lord when he realized that he had sinned against God, and his fast was an act of penance in retribution for his deeds. Similarly, Jonah the prophet was sent by God to warn the Ninevites of their sinful ways. When Jonah’s warning reached the king, he listened with utmost respect and reverence, and declared that every citizen should fast in sack cloth and ashes , and give up their sinful ways. By this sincere act of penance, the king prayed humbly for the Lord’s mercy and compassion on the city of Nineveh. Thus fasting served as a stringent form of penance where people turned away from their evil ways, humbly subjecting themselves to God’s Will.
The changed context in the New Testament
The concept of fasting as penance is carried forward in the New Testament also, but here this practice is given a different context. The physical presence of the evil spirit is more tangible in the Gospels, and he presents himself as the ruler of the world right from the beginning. The Gospels of Mathew, Mark and Luke describe the forty-day fast of Jesus right before He commences His public ministry. We notice that the Holy Spirit led Him to a face-to face confrontation with Satan in the desert. The idea that fasting and prayer leads to a deep infilling of the Holy Spirit is strongly suggested here. This spiritual strength is absolutely essential to helps us recognize different forms of evil temptations, and ward them off successfully.
The first temptation of Jesus
Though physically weakened, Jesus faced Satan fortified with the power of the Holy Spirit The first temptation offered by Satan attempted to provoke Jesus into using His divine powers to satisfy His hunger. Satan asked Jesus to turn the stones into bread. Jesus pushed aside the temptation, insisting that the Word of God should be our first food. Only when we have learnt how to use our resources and talents in obedience to God’s Will, should we set our sights on material gains.
Satan’s second offer
Satan’s second offer was on a much larger scale. Satan offered Jesus the world, which was presently under his custody, if Jesus were ready to worship him. Satan’s offer was dismissed without a second’s delay, as Jesus vowed to worship and serve only the one God and Creator.
This requires some reflection from our part. As part of our penitential fasts, we may be able to give up food and spend our time in gaining a deeper understanding of the Word of God. But how many of us fail to adhere to the right path once the stakes are raised to much higher levels. Even while we hold the banner of Christ and the Word high, we cannot deny that we turn against our own siblings in the name of business profits and family property. If we are given a chance to prosper materially through dishonest means, there are very few among us who would turn the offer down. Once we have realized our material ambitions, we turn a blind eye to those who struggle with poverty, and consolidate our position in society. These are the common ways of the world, but they all lead us away from God’s Way and bring us into close proximity with the evil one. We cannot put our feet in two worlds. In Mathew 12:30 Jesus gives us a clear mandate on the subject—“He who is not with me is against me.”
The third temptation in the desert
The third temptation Satan extended to Jesus in the desert is much more subtle in its intent. It secretly rests in the heart of the righteous, of those who seemingly follow God’s path. Taking Jesus to the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem, Satan told Him to jump off. Quoting from the Scriptures he reminded Jesus of God’s promise to send His angels to protect Him from getting hurt.
Satan knew that Jesus was about to commence His ministry. A public demonstration of His superhuman power would have given him an admiring audience. But Jesus knew that this was not His mission or His Way. He refused to use God’s power bestowed on Him for the wrong reasons. The best of us are sometimes prone to use the spiritual gifts God has given us in ways that help us gain fame and attention for ourselves, rather than for God. This is Satan’s sharpest arrow. Unawares, God’s most loyal disciples are led up the wrong path, and they justify their actions with convincing quotations from the Bible, just as Satan did with Jesus.
Doing the right thing for the wrong reason
Those of you who have read T.S.Eliot’s poetic drama Murder in the Cathedral will recall how the protagonist Thomas Beckett, who faced martyrdom for Christ, encountered four tempters during his life, just like Jesus did in the desert. He easily overcame the temptations offered by the first three, which were invitations to power and fame. But Beckett had not expected the fourth tempter, who offered him something that was unconsciously already growing in his own mind— the fame and glory of becoming a martyr. Beckett soon realized that though he was prepared for martyrdom, he was doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Often, Satan uses his worst tricks with those who are closest to God.
Fasting for spiritual power
In the light of what the Bible teaches us about Jesus’s forty -day fast in the desert, we understand that the best fruits of this Lenten tradition is the powerful infilling of the Holy Spirit, which alone makes us capable of resisting the devil and standing firm in our faith, as St Peter advises us (1 Peter 5:8-9).
The Old Testament also gives us an example of spiritual power through fasting and prayer from the life of Moses, who spent forty days and nights without food and water in the presence of Yahwe, as he received “direction, wisdom and guidance from God” to write the Ten Commandments on the stone tablet. (Exodus 34:28). We see similar instances in the Acts (13:2-3) where the apostles often fasted and prayed to remain in the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Recapturing the powerful fruits of fasting and prayer
Somewhere along the way, the powerful fruits that result from fasting and prayer have lost their relevance, and the tradition is hardly observed at all even by practicing Christians. Those who still observe Lenten fasts do it for a variety of inconsequential reasons— sometimes as a diet break to enhance health and beauty, and at other times as a form of self-discipline and self-denial. While each of these has its own merits, they are trivialities when compared to the spiritual strength that Jesus Christ gained and demonstrated in the desert. This spirituality is what Jesus promised us through the Holy Spirit after His death and resurrection; this is what emboldened the apostles , and this is what we need to empower us spiritually far beyond our limited human capabilities.