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‘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.

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