‘One does not live by bread alone’ (Lk 4:4). Perhaps these words summarise the message of the gospel. From the time of creation to this moment, through generations, God has been telling us the same thing, that we cannot live by bread alone. Word is more important than bread and it is what gives us life. In the garden of Eden every kind of food was allowed to Adam and Eve, only exception being the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God in his infinite wisdom knew that for Adam and Eve it was sufficient to live by the fruits of other trees. But unfortunately, this prohibition itself prompted Eve to fall into the temptation to taste the forbidden fruit. Had they obeyed the commandment not to eat of the tree of knowledge, human history would have been different. Yes, a little abstinence was, and is capable of changing the course of history.
Centuries passed, and we read about a king who ordered his country to abstain from not one but all kinds of food. ‘No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; He may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish’ (Jon 3: 7-9). This order from the king changed the history of Nineveh and saved them from the disaster that was prophesied to befall them.
Prophet Elijah will give testimony that man does not need bread everyday to sustain life. For him a cake baked on hot stone and a jar of water was enough to sustain him during an arduous journey through the desert that lasted forty days. Finally he did reach Horeb, the mount of God. This man who was ‘very zealous for the Lord’, could hear the voice of God. He was blessed with something that no other person was fortunate to get. ‘As they (Elijah and Elisha) continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven’ (2 Kings 2:11). About this man, the Book of Sirach testifies: ‘At the appointed time, it is written, you are destined to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and to restore the tribes of Jacob’ (Sir 48:10).
Elijah did return at the appointed time. This time his name was John the Baptist. ‘He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord’ (Lk 1:17). Jesus praises John the Baptist as the greatest among all those born of women. As Jesus testifies, John was a man of fasting, who voluntarily subjected his body to a rigorous and challenging lifestyle. ‘For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine…..’ (Lk 7:33). If Elijah had the ‘luxury’ of a cake baked on hot stones, John made himself live on locusts and wild honey. Unlike Elijah, it was not for a short period. It was John’s staple food for his whole life until perhaps he ended up in the prison of Herod. It was from there that his head was severed and served on a platter in a vain attempt to satisfy the insatiable consort of the king. It was also the price Herod paid for his own iniquities.
Like Elijah and John the Baptist, Jesus also was a man of fasting. Though only one fasting which was followed by the temptation in the wilderness is recorded in detail in the gospels, there are enough indications that it has been Jesus’ habit to undertake long sessions of prayer with fasting. To a question from his disciples as to why they could not cast a demon out of a boy, Jesus replied; “This kind can come out only through prayer” (Mk 9:29 – NRSV). In the Douay- Rheims translation of the Bible that was done from Latin Vulgate, Jesus’ answer contains fasting also together with prayer. ‘This kind can go out by nothing, but by prayer and fasting’. Some other well known translations also follow this line because ‘and fasting’ is seen attributed to many ancient authorities. It is no secret that all those who are seriously into the ministry of casting out demons and evil spirits draw their strength from fasting and prayer.
Coming to our days, why should we fast? Well, there are a number of reasons and getting slimmer is none among them. For a Christian, fasting is for spiritual benefit. There is nothing wrong in fasting for health reasons, but it should not be confused with spiritual fasting.
The first and foremost reason for fasting is to remain in fellowship with God. Food is a natural cause of temptation, and it is easy to fall prey to it as Eve did. The immediate result of Adam and Eve eating of the forbidden fruit, in spite of having plenty of other fruits to enjoy, was that they lost the fellowship with God.
Second reason that should encourage us to fast is that it will bring God’s mercy upon us, as in the case of Nineveh. No matter how unworthy we are, humbling ourselves before God in fasting and prayer will move our God. This is what Ahab teaches us. ‘Indeed, there was no one like Ahab, who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord, urged by his wife Jezebel. He acted most abominably in going after idols, as the Amorites had done, whom the Lord drove out before the Israelites. When Ahab heard those words (the words of Elijah about God’s impending sentence), he tore his clothes and put sackcloth over his bare flesh; he fasted, lay in the sackcloth, and went about dejectedly. Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite. “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days…..” (1 Kings 21: 25-26). If Ahab could find God’s mercy by fasting and prayer, why should we doubt its efficacy?
Those who desired to know the mysteries of God always used fasting and prayer as their sure tools. We have the example of Daniel, who was a man of fasting and prayer. We see him abstaining from the luxuries of royal food. ‘But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine’ (Dan 1:8). Instead he lived on vegetables and water. Again, he turned to fasting when he learnt about the prophecy of Jeremiah about a seventy year period of devastation destined for Jerusalem. ‘Then I turned to the Lord God, to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes'(Dan.9:3). At the end of the fasting God sent Angel Gabriel to him with the good news that Daniel was waiting for. “Daniel, I have come out to give you wisdom and understanding’ (Dan 9:22). We read about another instance of Daniel’s fasting in chapter 10. ‘At that time I, Daniel, had been mourning for three weeks. I had eaten no rich food, no meat or wine had entered my mouth and I had not anointed myself at all, for the full three weeks’ (Dan 10:2). We see Daniel coming out blessed with the divine knowledge of things going to happen in future, especially those revelations about the end times. Fasting and prayer are the surest ways to know God’s plan and to discern the signs of our times.
Fasting will help us in resisting temptations. All those seemingly irresistible temptations that Satan placed before Jesus were not enough to shake him who was fresh from a fasting and prayer that lasted forty days. We can see in the life stories of many saints that their primary weapon against temptations was nothing but fasting. A true fasting cleanses the soul more than the body. It is the most important weapon given to us to conquer the three enemies of man as represented by the world, the flesh, and the devil.
When we say fasting, the first thought coming to the mind of many would be the practice of abstaining from food for a certain period. It can be either total abstinence or confined to certain selected food items only. Normally what is suggested in the second case is to abstain from those things that we relish more or that we take everyday, be it meat, beverages or sweetmeats. But fasting has a much wider meaning and it includes many things beyond food. Fasting in a wider sense includes abstinence from any kind of pleasures and avoiding food is only part of it. In fact a fasting that puts severe restriction on our body, our way of life, our enjoyments and our pleasures is far more effective than a fasting that is confined to the dining table.
Apart from the benefits that accrue to those practising it, fasting and prayer have a totally different dimension also. It is a way of reparation. When we go through the messages of the Blessed Virgin given at various places where she appeared, we find that fasting is suggested to appease God and to hold back His wrath. Our Lady calls on us to practise fasting so as to cleanse ourselves from all inclinations towards sin and also as reparation for the many sins of this world.
No doubt, prayer is effective, but its efficacy is increased when it is done along with fasting. Giving everything the flesh needs, though it is permitted, will make us strong in body. But it will weaken the soul. Accepting everything the world offers us will strengthen the worldly spirit in us. But it will do great damage to the spirit that God has deposited in us. In the ultimate analysis, our success or failure depends on how we feed our flesh and soul. If we give importance to feeding the flesh, we cannot expect that our soul will be nourished. On the other hand if we nourish our soul with constant prayer and fasting, it will give us full control over our body.
Ideally, the body should be subservient to the mind and the mind should be subservient to the soul. But human nature always tends to reverse this order to suit the needs of flesh. We find our flesh exercising dominion over the mind and the mind in turn trying to control the soul. It will end up in us becoming more and more friendly with this world. This is exactly the risk James tells us to avoid. ‘Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? (Jas 4:4-5).
Feel like God is not listening to your fasting and prayer? It is not something new. During Prophet Isaiah’s time also there were people who lamented that though they fasted, God did not answer them. ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’ (Isa 58:3). Isaiah had only one answer to give them. ‘Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?” (Isa 58:3-5). Isaiah tells us that the exterior expressions of fasting will not suffice before God. God is interested in our inner self, not in our inflated ego that we deflate for one day, that too out of compulsion, thinking that it will please God.
During the time of Jesus also there were people who wanted others to know that they were fasting. To them Jesus said; ‘ And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you’ (Mt 6:16-18). We fast with a purpose in the hope that we will be rewarded. Jesus says there are two kinds of rewards, the first being a worldly one and the second and important one being the heavenly reward. External manifestations of fasting will bring us earthly rewards, whereas an abstinence coming from the depths of our hearts will entitle us to heavenly rewards.
For the past few decades or so, fasting has been a neglected area of Christian life. Of course, there are thousands of Christians who derive spiritual benefits from fasting. Yet, as a community, Christians have started neglecting the practice of fasting in the recent past, many not knowing its benefits, and some though knowing, not interested in sacrificing the pleasures of this world. Both need a course correction, because the times that live in demand us to return to our God with fasting and prayer. Fasting is in a sense living with God in His company. This is because we are connected to the outer world through our senses and in fasting we are depriving the senses of their comfort and pleasure. As we move more and more away from things that concern the flesh, we come more and more closer to spiritual things, the realm where we will meet God.
Often our youth would say; ‘We have never seen our parents fasting. But they were good Christians. Then why should we fast?’ The question itself contains the answer. Older generations could lead a rewarding spiritual life even without fasting because they were prayer warriors and this made up for their lack of fasting. Today we cannot lead a worthy life of faith without increasing the time spent on prayer and without, at least occasionally, rejuvenating our spiritual life with fasting. It is not because we have changed, but because our world has changed and the enemy has added more lethal weapons to his quiver in one last ditch effort to take as many souls as possible along with him on his final journey to the bottomless abyss. We need to resist him in this final battle. Never think that he is fighting us from outside. He has already infiltrated the minds of many and to cast him out we need fasting and prayer. If our Divine Master defeats the devil with these weapons, we are also called to use them to our advantage.
And it should be the kind of fasting that the Lord demands from us, of which Isaiah says; ‘Is not this the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide from your own kin?’ (Isa 58:6-7).
Now we need the mercy of God more than ever. Now we need the gift of discernment more than ever. Now we need the strength to fight temptations more than ever. And finally now we need to be with God at all times, because we are running the last lap in our race to meet him in person. Elijah ran the last lap of his race to the mount of the Lord, with minimal food. Deprivation of food for forty days did not affect his body. Daniel and his friends abstained from the delicious royal food and wine that would have been anybody’s envy. And at the end of this self-imposed abstinence of four young men from rich food and royal wine, what surprised the Babylonians was that they were better and fatter than all the young men who had been eating the royal rations. Lesson one. When we eat, we take care of our body but when we fast God will take care of it. But more important was that they were blessed with knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom and Daniel was specially blessed with insight into all visions and dreams. Lesson two. Fasting places us in the fast track to wisdom and discernment.
Let us transform our spiritual lives placing constant prayer and fasting at its centre. We will do it with the firm conviction that these are tough times and tough times need tougher remedies, fasting being the most efficacious of them all.