One of my favorite seasons of the church year is Lent, the 40 days immediately prior to Easter, excluding Sundays. (I feel the same way about Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Easter and Pentecost as well as the Ordinary Time between Epiphany/Lent and Pentecost/Advent.) The church seasons established by our fathers and mothers in the faith offer a rhythm that is good for our souls.
Lent is a time of introspection and repentance in preparation for Easter Day. Initially, a period of fasting and preparation for the baptism of new believers, Lent eventually evolved into a time of penance for all Christ-followers. Though prayer and fasting are spiritual disciplines that we do well to practice throughout the year, they are particularly emphasized during Lent.
While most Christ-followers know a lot about prayer, fasting is a less familiar spiritual habit in our culture. Even so, fasting is a companion to prayer that has been practiced by Judaism and Christianity across the ages, as well as by several other world religions, including Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.
Fasting is the practice of abstaining from food and/or water for a designated period of time as an act of devotion to God. Ideally, when we deny our physical needs of food and/or liquids, we grow in sensitivity to our spirituals responses. Fasts are observed for a variety of reasons, including increasing our ability to focus on:
Religious fasting is always God-centered. Scripture passages that reference fasting abound in both the Old and New Testaments. Check out your favorite concordance or search the internet for numerous examples of this.
The early church fasted twice a week. Catholicism calls for fasting at various times of the Christian year. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, observed what has come to be known as “The Wesley Fast,” abstaining from food after Thursday dinner until mid-afternoon on Friday.
I typically observe a Wesley Fast weekly, joining thousands of members of the 80+ Methodist-related denominations that are a part of the World Methodist Council. To receive a weekly Prayer & Fasting reminder, go to www.worldmethodist.org. On the opening page, click to “connect” and then “join our prayer & fasting community.”
Sometimes during a fast my stomach growls and I feel less energetic than usual. However, I also increase my focus on my dependence upon God, God’s ways and serving others. In addition, I am reminded to pray for and act on behalf of the estimated 800+ million people in the world who do not have access to enough food. This is more than 10 percent of the world population! (See more at www.worldhunger.org).
Since fasting from food is unwise for people with particular health situations, some persons fast for specified periods of time from electronic devices, shopping and other similar activities. Those who have not participated in food fasts previously or in recent years are encouraged to check with a physician before launching or re-launching the spiritual discipline of fasting.
Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13 and Luke 4:1-13 often are linked with Lenten fasts. Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness for 40 days immediately following his baptism and prior to the launch of his public ministry.
Sometimes people fast from a particular food during the 40 days of Lent. My cousin once gave up green peas for Lent. (I was impressed with his sacrifice until I learned that he hated green peas.) Often I give up desserts for Lent. One of the happiest discoveries of my adult life was learning that the celebratory spirit of Sunday trumps the somber sacrifice of Lent. So even in those years when I omit desserts from my diet during Mondays-Saturdays of Lent, I relish in biting into a luscious dessert on Sundays as my statement to the world that Christian living is delightful, joy-filled and victorious.
Instead of fasting from food or activity for Lent, some people tackle growing edges. Perhaps it is a determination to make God's will more central, a decision to spend more time on priorities or a commitment to live in a more Christlike way. Or it may involve adding a habit like serving at a food pantry once a week, participating in a small accountability group or volunteering to go on a spring break mission project.
My prayer for each of us is that we will come out of the Lenten season that begins on Wednesday, February 26 more Christlike than we have ever been before. Practicing increased prayer as well as some form of fasting are steps that God can use to move us in that direction. Matthew 4:11 says that at the conclusion of Jesus’ forty days and nights of fasting, "angels came and waited on him." Think of that! Jesus came out on the other side of the grueling wilderness fasting experience into a glorious spiritual experience.
Our forty days of Lent will end with a grand spiritual experience too. We call it Easter day and it will be all the more magnificent because of Lenten prayer and fasting.
Will you join me this Lenten season in delving wholeheartedly into fasting and prayer?
This is part of the Christian journey. Jesus took it and we do well to follow his lead.
As always, it is a privilege to serve as your bishop.
North Alabama Conference