“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” Matthew 6:16
Fasting isn’t self-torture; it’s an ancient spiritual practice that improves our health while cultivating our intimacy with God. In remembrance of Christ, we recommend eating a “biblical” dairy-free, meat-free Christian meal. You can do this during a time of spiritual struggle, a quest for discernment, or just two days a week (Wednesday and Friday), according to the ancient Christian habit (see The Didache: The Lord’s Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nation).
As we’ve said before, nearly 25% of all US deaths each year are related to heart disease. Almost 72% of Americans are overweight or obese. Seventy percent of Americans also identify as Christians. We can’t say they are the same folks, but there must be a major overlap. Clearly, something has to change with how Americans eat. But that can be a hard pill to swallow.
Plant-based diets are not some trendy fad. They are part of ancient Christian practices. They are, uh, also a trendy fad. But, the wellness benefits of a plant-based diet is a scientific fact. It can:
- reduce cancer risk
- reduce inflammation in the body
- help maintain a healthy weight
But it’s tough to change what we eat. Food can reflect our identity. We can find ourselves inextricably linked to our culture, traditions, and upbringing through the ritual of breaking bread. Whether we carry forth these values in our adult lives or teach what we’ve learned to our children, the prospect of changing our eating habits can be hard and even frightening.
The words “diet” or “fasting” might be loaded terms for us as we conjure up images of celebrity craze diets, counting calories, or extreme times of not eating. But Christian fasting is just regularly eating simple, whole foods, or a plant-based diet and holding off on very savory or very sweet flavors from time to time. It can also mean intermittent fasting—going without food for a day. But we will talk about that in another post.
In the Synoptic Gospels, Christ’s disciples did not fast because Christ was among them (he is Immanuel, aka God among us). Every day was like a feast. But when Jesus rose from the grave, it was expected that his followers would go back to the fasting tradition. That is how the early Church saw it.
In the Eastern Church, fasting is still done on Wednesday and Friday in remembrance of the day Christ was betrayed, and the day he was crucified. Fasting, in this sense, is a tool that assists us in spiritual growth, rather than a kind of deprivation. These fasts were times of reflection. Times when Christians, and the Jews before them, turn their attention away from their stomachs and toward God.
Fasts are biblically rooted, and today there are plenty of resources out there for building your own biblical diet. Some Evangelicals have embraced the Daniel Fast in recent years. Many Catholics eat fish on Fridays as a remembrance. The Anglican/Episcopal Church endorses fasting every Friday in its 1928 Book of Common Prayer.
Longer fasts like Lent vary depending on the season. Remember that in the earliest days of the Great Church, there were both feasts and fasts. Most of us still embrace the “feasting” while conveniently forgetting about the fasting.
Remember, turning to God’s grace is the real focus. Fasting is only one way we practice the pivot. Go easy. The goal is progress, not perfection.
Here are some basic pointers on starting your fast.
1. Start small. Maybe fast one meal a week for several weeks. Then try two meals, and work your way up to three meals a day, for two days every week. Or eat a fasting meal after you exercise and pray. Remember not to eat at least three hours before exercise and silent prayer.
2. Plan what you’ll eat in advance. Fasting isn’t merely an act of mindful eating, but a spiritual discipline about being deliberate in the way you seek God’s fullness. Be intentional.
3. Don’t replace meat and dairy with sugar and a lot of carbs or seek out a lot of exotic spicy, rich, or saucy vegan options like Indian or Thai food. This is fine in the short run as you try to transition to a new habit. The Christian fasting tradition is about simple foods, not simply being free of meat and cheese out of concern for health, animals, or the environment (which is also good).
4. Consider how it will affect others. Fasting is no license to be unloving. You may get grumpy at first. Be mindful and pray upon your behavior toward others during your fasts.
5. Pray and watch (mindfulness). Pray with special earnestness for God’s help. As hunger arises, become present and mindful of the sensation. Meditate on it (think about the what, where, when, why, and how of your hunger) and what it means to your relationship with God and your body.
6. Go into it gradually. DON’T jump in with both feet. DON’T go all in. This will only make it more likely that you’ll break your diet and fall off the mark. If you GO BIG, you may quickly find yourself GOING HOME. Slow and steady wins the race and this is a marathon (1 Timothy 4:7-8).
7. And like all things, do it with others in the Body of Christ. Find a group, start with some friends, talk with your parish leader about it. We all need one another and Christ in our midst to make a change for the better.
We’ll have more posts with recipes and ways to ease into fasting in the future. Until then, think on it, and remember that it is Christ who fills our hunger, not bread…hmmm…yummy, yummy bread.
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