Showing posts with label fasting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fasting. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

When We Don't Eat

"And when you fast, do not look dismal...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.”
(The Gospel of Matthew 6:16-18)
Fasting, specifically as an act of piety, is not commanded in Christian scriptures. However, Christians who observe periods of fasting do so because they find that fasting, together with prayer, is a private and deeply spiritual practice that draws one’s heart closer to God. The liturgical season of Lent[1] is a time when many Christians observe a partial fast, abstaining from certain foods, such as sweets and/or meat. Fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday often involves abstinence from both food and drink for a period of 24 hours. Any time of spiritual struggle is an occasion for fasting; Christians are reminded that fasting is not simply about self-denial, but about heightened awareness of all who suffer.

I am moved by your spiritual practice of fasting, Grace, and intrigued by the text you have chosen from The Gospel of Matthew.  I had always understood these verses as part of a Jesus’ teachings about practical piety which emphasize private rituals.  Since the Torah[2] doesn’t specify how we are to “afflict our souls” on the tenth day of the seventh month, the rabbis[3] instituted rituals for Yom Kippur, including prohibitions against eating, drinking, wearing leather shoes, bathing and anointing with oil, and sexual relations.  In this context, I had understood Jesus’ teachings—particularly the instructions “anoint your head and wash your face”—to be a reaction against the rabbis’ public piety. Incidentally, the rabbis themselves often railed against overt piousness, which they viewed as arrogance.  They considered fasting to be a form of repentance and added numerous public fasts to the calendar to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. They also prescribed communal fasts during times of drought to petition God, in His mercy, to send rain in its appropriate season.

Fasting is a central part of the Islamic tradition and one that I hold dear. One of the five pillars of Islam, fasting is prescribed during the month of Ramadan, the 9th lunar month.[4]  Similar to the Christian and Jewish traditions, the abstinence from food, drink, smoking and marital relations has many purposes in Islam. Fasting is one way to attain a heightened sense of God consciousness, by giving the “self” an opportunity to rise above its desires and allowing the soul to attain the virtues that adorn the righteous.  Some common practices that are encouraged during this month are giving to charity, strengthening family and friendship ties, intense reflection and repentance, and nightly prayers and reading of the Quran. Ramadan elevates my awareness of the mind’s power to fight temptation and helps me establish good habits.  I feel a profound sense of spiritual revitalization, as my gratitude, compassion and, most of all, humility are heightened when I fast.

[1] Lent is a 40-day period of reflection and penance, which begins with Ash Wednesday and concludes with Easter. Good Friday, the Friday prior to Easter when Christians commemorate the death of Jesus, is a day of atonement.
[2] Leviticus 16:29-31, Leviticus 23:27-32 and Numbers 29:7
[3] Mishnah Yoma, Chapter 10
[4] Quran, al-Baqarah 2:183-185