“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. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” — Matthew 6:16-18
With Ash Wednesday coming this week, a lot of people are thinking about what sort of sacrifice they might make for Lent this year. The practice of giving up something for lent, while not precisely a biblical mandate, nevertheless has its roots in the ancient practice of fasting.
In recent times it’s become somewhat fashionable to expand the notion of fasting to giving up any sort of practice that takes focus away from God. People will fast from watching television, using Facebook, eating ice cream, drinking soda…there are any number of ways one can “fast” by this definition.
And while on the surface there’s nothing wrong with that, the biblical model for fasting is to abstain from food. Period. Nowhere in scriptures does it say to give up Facebook for Lent.
I did a little research in preparation for my upcoming visit to Harmony-Zelienople UMC this weekend to speak at their youth group’s 30-Hour Famine event. It seems there’s really only one command regarding fasting in the Hebrew scriptures, and that’s for the Day of Atonement (it’s mentioned in Leviticus 16 and 23 and in Numbers 29). And it’s very clear that the Israelites were to abstain from eating and drinking specifically.
It’s also clear, however, that people fasted in the Bible on a number of occasions besides the Day of Atonement. It was a very common spiritual practice, and it was primarily considered a means of repentance. Contrary to our contemporary belief that connects fasting with some sort of “spirit quest” a la Native American practices, in Jesus’ day fasting was understood to be something people did to demonstrate to God that they were changing the direction of their lives (repent literally means to change one’s mind and purpose).
Fasting as an act of repentence also makes it an act of cleansing. Hence Jesus’ instructions to “put oil on your head and wash your face” in Matthew 6:17. John the Baptizer told people to repent and be baptized. Repentance leads to transformation. Becoming a new person. Washing away the old person.
And so, for this Lenten season, I’d like to invite you to join me in a weekly fast for repentance and transformation (I’m doing juice & water only…feel free to choose a fasting method that works best for your health). Every week between now and Easter, I plan to engage in a fast from sundown on Thursday to sundown of Friday (a typically Jewish timeframe). The purpose for those of us who participate will be to engage in repentance–to change our minds and purposes–and to seek more fully the kingdom of God.
If you’ve fasted before, you know how powerful the practice can be. If you haven’t, I encourage you to try it. 24 hours is actually a pretty easy amount of time to engage in a fast. Heck, you get to sleep through a third of it!
If you choose to join me in this journey, please use the comment section here or join the conversation on my Facebook event page to share the experience with others, to seek encouragement, or just to discuss any insights you receive as a result of this ancient and holy practice.