For centuries, most religions have practiced fasting. Fasting is the intentional giving up of something, usually food, in order to add focus and devotion.
Some groups practice selective fasting every week. These days, fasting is usually associated with dieting and exercise. However, there is a long tradition of fasting for spiritual purposes. Judaism has a strong “fasting and feasting” tradition during certain seasons and occasions.
Religious groups set aside certain times of the year to abstain from food or from some other item or activity. During the time of Ramadan, for instance, Muslims fast from food and water during daylight hours. This period is supposed to deepen devotion and focus upon satisfying spiritual needs over physical cravings.
Roman Catholics have a practice of fasting from meat on Fridays during Lent. This is why you may remember your school cafeteria serving fish on Fridays: to accommodate those who follow this practice. For most Christians, Protestants and Catholics alike, the season of Lent is set aside as a time of focused fasting. Lent marks an approximately 40-day period leading up to Easter. This year, Lent began on Feb. 17.
Lent always begins on a Wednesday, called Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday worship services usually consist of the imposition of ashes on the forehead, usually in the shape of a cross. The ashes are a mark of humility — “from ashes we have come and to ashes we shall return” — and signify the beginning of a 40-day journey of repentance, deeper spiritual focus, periods of fasting and acts of service to others. It is preceded by a feast day known as “Fat Tuesday” or, in French, Mardi Gras. The idea is that one participates in a celebratory feast in preparation for a time of self-denial and renewed spiritual focus.
The pattern for Lent is found in the New Testament Gospels, immediately after the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, which is a sort of “launching” of Jesus’s public ministry (see Mark 1:9-12). During this baptism, Jesus comes up from the water, and to the amazement of the crowd, a voice from Heaven declares Jesus to be the Son of God. Interestingly, instead of capitalizing on this great moment of recognition and fame, Jesus is immediately led by God into the wilderness. In the wilderness, Jesus goes without food (fasts) and is tested for 40 days. The pattern for the contemporary practice of Lent emerges here.
The idea is that is Jesus, who has just been recognized as the Son of God, is to pull away, focus on his mission, deepen his commitment and abstain from food in order to gain that focus, so should we.
Fasting in all of these religious expressions is a revolutionary act. It allows us to demonstrate that faith outweighs even our most basic wants and needs. It also intentionally puts us in greater empathy with those who go without basic wants and needs due to poverty, oppression or illness.
In Lent, each Sunday is a sort of reprieve, where worship, fellowship and partaking in food and drink are allowed. Finally, the deeper devotion and spiritual struggle of Lent and of the week leading up to Easter (Holy Week) are rewarded. Easter, the oldest feast of the Christian Church, is a celebration of new life, new direction and new devotion.