When you fast

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18).

People who fast give up something voluntarily for a time. Generally, when we think of fasting, we think of giving up food, or at least some kind of food. Fasting can also meaning giving up an activity, such as video games or surfing the Internet. Some fasts are performed for religious reasons; others are done for medical reasons. Fasting often has a goal for this lifetime: a healthy body, or a clearer mind, or a better way of life.

Jesus assumes that we will fast for religious reasons. He assumes that fasting is part of our relationship with God. Jesus warns us not to fast to impress other people. He tells us to keep our fasting a secret that is known only to us and to God. Jesus could easily have added that fasting for other reasons, such as our own health, should not be confused with fasting for God.

Perhaps some of us would benefit from fasting. We might lose weight and improve our health. Such a fast is not rewarded by God, except in the way that his creation functions to reward our fasting with health benefits. If we fast to break a bad habit and gain control over our lives, that fast is also not rewarded by God aside from the rewards we receive through his creation. When we fast for worldly reasons, we are not fasting for God. Our goals may be good, and we may achieve them; but when we achieve those goals, we have received the only reward we will get for fasting.

We fast for God to show him that we love him. We fast for God to show him that nothing is more important to us than he is. When we choose to fast for God—whether we choose to go without food for a day or television for a week or chocolate for a month or alcohol for the rest of our lives—we learn self-control. By saying no to a desire, we learn to say no to temptations. We do this for God, as part of our relationship with him. We are not trying to improve ourselves or impress other people.

Some people treat their fasting as a way of bargaining with God, doing something for him that will force God to do something for us. Such an attitude reveals an unhealthy relationship with God. Some people try to force others to fast along with them, delivering a group message to God by their fasting. Such fasting is also not done in the spirit of what Jesus teaches regarding the privacy of fasting.

Fasting teaches us about Jesus—that is its greatest reward. When we give up something for Jesus, we remind ourselves of all that Jesus surrendered to rescue us. All glory belongs to him, and he is in charge of the universe. Yet he left his exalted position to live among us as one of us. Then, as one of us, he sacrificed his comfort, his freedom, his health, and even his life to pay for our sins and to claim us for his kingdom.

If our fast reminds us of what we want, we receive—at best—only worldly rewards for our fasting. When our fast reminds us of Jesus and his saving work on our behalf, then we receive an eternal reward. We have faith in Jesus. We have fellowship with him. Those gifts are worth far more than any other reward we might gain from fasting. J.

The first six days….

On the first day of Christmas, I fasted from the Internet. It was a premeditated and deliberate fast. We had church in the morning and family the rest of the day. We exchanged presents, ate together, visited, played a game or two, and enjoyed each other’s company. There was a time when I was one of six people sitting in the living room, the only one of the six not looking at a handheld device, but even that was okay.

On the second day of Christmas I caught up. Nothing had happened on email or Facebook or WordPress that needed my immediate attention, so that was fine.

On the third day of Christmas I traveled to a relative’s house. Every year between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day the extended family tries to gather, and this year was no exception. In fact, a certain group of seven close relatives was together in the same place for the first time in more than five years, jobs and school and other commitments keeping one or another away from the family gathering each of the last several years. Again, we exchanged gifts, ate together, played a game or two, and enjoyed each other’s company. This is the closest I have ever come to a Christmas celebration involving “kids from one to ninety-two”: my father is ninety (ninety-one in a little more than a week), and my niece’s son is two.

Other years when we have gathered for a family Christmas, I have taken advantage of access to an almost-abandoned desktop computer with Internet access, and I have kept up with email and with social media. This year I decided on a whim not to touch that computer. For three days and three nights I was off the Internet. I have some catching up to do, but I gather that nothing happened in the last three days that required my immediate attention. One of my favorite sports teams may have made a change while I wasn’t paying attention, or there might have been some news I missed—although I did have access to the daily newspaper. I didn’t even go online to play nonograms or sudoku; I did do one sudoku by pencil in Saturday’s newspaper.

A holiday fast from the Internet is surprisingly refreshing. I was not completely without electric stimulus: some of us watched football on TV, and if someone wanted to show me a clever meme or video, I obliged. But during those three days and three nights I was interacting with people only if they were in the same room as me, only if we could hear and see one another as we spoke.

Tomorrow I will again catch up. Meanwhile, the chance to catch up with family was a good way to enjoy the Christmas season. And six days of Christmas remain to be celebrated. J.

Ash Wednesday is St. Valentine’s Day

This winter contains several odd conjunctions. January ended with a Super/Blue/Blood moon. February has no full moon, something which happens roughly every seventeen years. March will have a blue moon. And in the middle of February, St. Valentine’s Day will fall on Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent.

At least two, and possibly three, Christian martyrs named Valentine are remembered on February 14. Popular tradition associates one of them with messages about God’s love, but evidence of such letters does not exist. Probably the romantic aspect of St. Valentine’s Day reflects preChristian celebrations in Europe. Already in midFebruary the new life of spring can be felt or anticipated. Birds gather to migrate north. Early flowers begin to sprout through the snow. Spring training camps open to get ready for the baseball season. No matter what the groundhog said on February 2, by the 14th the world is ready for spring.

From early times, Christians have used the last weeks of winter as a time to prepare for the observance of Good Friday and the celebration of Easter. The season of Lent consists of forty days plus six Sundays—each Sunday being a weekly reminder of the resurrection and so not counted among the forty days of Lent. Traditional churches treat Lent as a time of somber reflection and repentance. Christians remember that Jesus suffered and died on a cross to pay for our sins. Thinking about his sacrifice and our sins during Lent, traditional Christians change even Sunday worship. Praise songs are replaced with Lenten hymns. Flowers on the altar and other decorations are eliminated or reduced. Additional services are added to the schedule, often with a theme that prepares for the coming of Holy Week.

Many Christians choose to fast during Lent. They voluntarily surrender some usual pleasure during the forty days and six Sundays of Lent. Some give up candy. Some give up alcohol. Some give up video games. Fasting is not intended for self-improvement in a worldly sense, although giving up certain foods and beverages might have that effect. Fasting does not force God to provide blessings that he has withheld. Instead, fasting shows dedication to God. It provides evidence that God is more important than worldly pleasures. Fasting teaches self-control. When a Christian can say no to candy or video games for six-and-a-half weeks, that Christian is made stronger, able to say no to temptations to sin. Fasting also teaches compassion. When we go without luxuries, we understand how it feels to live without those luxuries because of poverty rather than choice.

The sinful world can take even the most noble customs of the church and pervert them into something twisted and strange. Plans to fast during Lent lead to a desire to use up the luxury before it is forbidden. What was once a simple matter of eating the last butter and eggs in the kitchen, or having one last piece of candy or one last martini, has become Mardi Gras and Carnival—riotous celebrations of worldliness that have more to do with darkness than with light. Perhaps those people who take part in Mardi Gras are more inclined to repent when they awaken on Ash Wednesday than their sober neighbors. All the same, a day and a season focused on repentance is not intended to encourage greater sin in advance, even if that does offer more reason to repent.

Setting aside the excesses of Mardi Gras, the odd conjunction of February 14 leads to a dilemma. Should one offer candy and other goodies to one’s family and one’s coworkers to honor St. Valentine’s Day, or should one consider the possibility that a person might be starting a fast on that day, choosing not to eat sweets until Easter? The Valentine treats should probably be shared earlier, to avoid the risk of undermining a time of fasting at its very beginning.

And, speaking of odd conjunctions, Easter Sunday this year will be observed on April Fools’ Day. J.

The season of Lent

This Wednesday many Christians around the world begin observing the season of Lent. This is a time of repentance, a time of somber reflection about our need for a Savior, and a time to prepare for the joyful good news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter.

From early times, Christians used late winter for these purposes. Some had shorter seasons of Lent and some had longer seasons of Lent; eventually, they united in observing a penitential season of forty days, remembering the forty days Jesus fasted in the wilderness as he battled Satan and his temptations. Those forty days are prefigured in the forty days and nights of rain during the time of Noah and the forty years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. From Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday actually includes forty-six days, because the Sundays during Lent are not counted. Even in Lent, Sunday marks the weekly celebration of the Lord’s resurrection. Therefore, these Sundays are labeled Sundays in Lent, but not Sundays of Lent.

Even on Sundays, though, traditional Christians scale back during Lent. The Hebrew word “alleluia,” which means “praise the Lord,” is not said or sung during Lent. Some congregations do not decorate with flowers during Lent, and some do not use handbells or chimes during Lent. The hymns of Lent are somber and reflective, placing emphasis on our need for a Savior and on the work our Savior accomplished for us. Some of the traditional hymns of this type are: Come to Calvary’s Holy Mountain, Go to Dark Gethsemane, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, and O Sacred Head Now Wounded.

Many Christians use the time of Lent to fast. Fasting means going without something for a time. Sometimes a fast means no food at all—people are required to fast before some medical procedures. (Because people do not eat while they sleep, the first meal of the day breaks a fast—hence, breakfast.) Other times fasting means going without one kind of food or activity. Those who fast might give up candy, chocolate, soft drinks, coffee, alcohol, television, electronic games, or Facebook. Although the Bible does not command Christians to fast, Jesus clearly expects Christians to fast. He does not say “if you fast,” but “when you fast” (Matthew 6:16). The instructions that follow warn Christians not to fast to impress other people; if so, impressing other people is the only reward we receive. Instead, we are to act normally while we fast. We are, of course, free to tell others we are fasting, especially if they offer us something we have chosen to give up for Lent. But we do not fast to show off our faith. Likewise, a fast for physical benefits—giving up desserts to lose weight—is not a religious exercise. Those who lose weight during Lent have received their reward in full. When we fast, the purpose is spiritual benefits, not mere worldly benefits.

Religious people (not just Christians) have observed three spiritual benefits that come from fasting. First, fasting increases dedication. By giving up something I love for God, I prove to myself that I love God more. Second, fasting increases self-control. If I can say no to chocolate or to electronic games for nearly seven weeks, I will be strengthened to say no to temptations to sin whenever they come. Third, fasting increases compassion. When I fast voluntarily, I understand the poor around me who fast, not for spiritual reasons, but because they cannot have what they want because of their poverty.

Some Christians treat fasting lightly. When I was a child, my father gave up fresh watermelon for Lent, and my pastor gave up swimming in Lake Superior. I have found that fasting does help to focus my attention on Christ and his Word. Moreover, I have learned about myself through fasting. (I have learned, for example, that it is harder for me to live without coffee than without alcohol.) Fasting cannot be used to bargain with God. We cannot make demands upon the Lord and insist that he fulfill them because we have fasted. Like all Christian activity, fasting helps to build a relationship with the Lord. In our fast, if we are not seeking other rewards, we draw closer to Jesus and understand better both what he expects from us and what he promises us.

Fasting is not required. Every Christian may decide whether or not she or she will fast, during Lent or at any other time. Lent is not required. We are told to let no one judge us about Sabbaths, seasons, holidays, or matters of food and drink. In the history of the Church, fasting and Lent have been found to be helpful to Christians. However you spend your time between now and Easter, may the Lord bless your observances and use them to draw you closer to him. J.