Mardi Gras (literally Fat Tuesday) is now a carnival celebration, which culminates on the day before Ash Wednesday. In Great Britain, Mardi Gras is referred to as Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day. The idea of Fat Tuesday originated in medieval times when monks would use up their rich food and fats, often in the form of pancakes, the night before Ash Wednesday which is the start of Lent. Lent is a season of penitence and fasting in the Church calendar so monasteries would make sure to use up their stores of rich food before the period of fasting began.
The Friday Fish Fry is also a Lenten tradition. Catholics fast from meat on Fridays during Lent and so eating fish has become a popular Lenten custom.
We learn in Matthew that John the Baptist, a cousin of Jesus, lived in the wilderness on a diet of honey and locusts (Matthew 3:4). This appears to be a permanent fast for John while he was preaching in the desert and baptizing people in the Jordan. His normal diet would have included bread, grains, fruits, olives, fish, and meat such as lamb or goat.
Fasting, as seen in these examples, is when we abstain from certain types of food that we would normally eat, for a spiritual purpose. In the season of Lent, Christians prepare for Easter and remember the 40-day period Jesus spent fasting in the desert. This Lenten fasting often takes the form of giving up certain food items such as chocolate, alcohol or coffee – non-essential or ‘luxurious’ food items. Others may fast from a meal – not eating lunch, for example. Still others may fast from solid food for one day a week.
So fasting from food as a spiritual practice is when we abstain from a certain type of food or drink (that we like!) or from a meal or from eating for a whole day, in order to identify with Jesus in his suffering and to make space for God. Historically, fasting for Jews served two purposes: repentance and preparation. And this is what Lenten fasting is all about – remembering our sins and preparing for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection at Easter. We can see that Jesus prepared for his ministry by fasting in the desert after receiving God’s blessing at his baptism.
How do we make space for God in our busy lives by fasting? Abstaining from a food or meal serves as a reminder of our spiritual life. I forgo my morning coffee and that giving up of something reminds me to look to God. If abstaining from a snack or meal frees up some time in my day, I can use that time for prayer and reflection, thus nurturing my spiritual body.
Fasting can also be an important spiritual practice when we are seeking God to help us with something in particular or need wisdom and discernment. When my husband was seeking God for guidance in his career, we decided to fast one day a week and use the time that we would normally be eating meals in prayer. We did not do this to ‘force’ God’s hand but to help us hear God’s voice, to reflect on the spiritual issues we were dealing with, and to orient ourselves to God. The purpose of any fast should be to remind us we are God’s children and help to turn our faces to God.
Other forms of fasting or abstinence will be discussed next month in Fasting (Part ll).
*Resources: ‘Soul Feast’ by Marjorie J. Thompson