A friend of mine asked me earlier this week what I thought about lenten fasts, the practice of giving up something for lent. She asked,
I'm asking this of a few people whose theological opinions I highly value: What are your thoughts on giving up something for Lent that you plan to start doing again on Easter morning? (giving up coffee for those 40 days, but no plan to permanently stop drinking coffee)
In a traditional sense a fast of any type is time limited. That is to say, you practice it for awhile and then break the fast at the end. As you are probably guessing at this point this is where we get the term Breakfast to refer to the first meal of the day. We "fast" from eating while we sleep and then break the fast upon awakening. The same goes for lent. You fast from something--chocolate, alcohol, and tv are the most popular, I think--and then upon Easter return to it. So, fasting is different then a New Year's resolution. It isn't about changing a behavior permanently, but about doing without something in order to experience one of the following things:
- A sense of clarity: often times when we fast, especially from food, once we get over the initial hunger, we can experience a clarity of mind that allows for extra focus, creativity, and inspiration. Actually, this is what I think was going on with Jesus fasting in the wilderness after his Baptism, which, by the way, is one of the stories at the root of Lent.
- Make space for God:related to the first one, sometimes when we fast we clear a bit of mental and/or physical space for God to be present with us. Now, I should enforce that God is always present with us, but we have an unlimited ability to put stuff between us and God: distractions, material things that must be maintained, and noise.
- A deeper understanding of longing:When we fast, and this is especially true for most folks in middle and upper class America, we actually do without something. We really aren't use to that in our culture of instant gratification. So, fasting can let us identify with longing, desire, hunger, and need. Not getting into the Social Justice ramifications, which are many and important, it can help us identify with what it was like for the earliest disciples to have to long for and wait in wonder and fear from the Crucifixion to the Resurrection, from Good Friday to Easter.
Ultimately, like any spiritual discipline it comes down to motives. If you are truly seeking a closer relationship with God then a fast will be beneficial regardless of whether you break the fast at the end of lent or not. If you have some other motivation, like being a spiritual show off (see Luke 20:46-47) then it won't be beneficial no matter how long you keep it going.
Fasts should be entered into prayerfully. Spend the season of Epiphany in prayer about what you can fast from or a practice you could take on that would draw you closer to God. God will let you know the best action to take. Also, breaking the fast on Easter can be a holy and wonderful celebration of the deliverance from the powers that be that we receive in the Resurrection. However, if you get to Easter and find that what you have given up is better left out of your life, that can be holy as well.
May you have a blessed and holy Lent that aids your journey toward Easter.