A fast with a pleasant aftertaste

First comes Mardi Gras—the Tuesday preceding Lent (also known as Shrove Tuesday)—then Ash Wednesday, and then Lent: a period that stretches all the way to Easter on the calendar. It is not about food deprivation per se, but primarily about introspection, a deeper look into one’s own heart.

Abundance prevails in many regions of this world. These regions are supposedly filled with rich people who live in an affluent society. They have everything, do not really need anything, and yet always ask for more. In many other countries of the world, the situation is just the opposite: there the people starve, they become sick due to malnutrition, they live in refugee camps or on the streets of rich metropolitan cities. And between these two extremes there is a broad spectrum of other situations. The sacred period of Lent reminds us of the fact that life consists of give and take, ups and downs, and light and shadows.

Voluntary and deliberate

Fasting is a voluntary practice. By definition, that is what makes it different from starvation. The idea is to concentrate on what is important and take some distance from secondary issues. Fasting makes one empty, and fills the void with things that are important and right—a simple equation.

A good number of examples in Holy Scripture show that those who consciously abstain from food become strong and feel rewarded despite their renunciation of nourishment. Jesus fasted before beginning His mission. Paul fasted before he was baptised. Fasting as a gateway to something higher, as training for crucial times ahead—this is an important motif in Scripture. Fasting means wanting to do without. Times of fasting are times of penance. They serve to purify. Fasting means consciously focusing on the things we already have. And at the same time, to call to mind that the things we have are not actually ours to possess—they are only on loan to us for a certain period of time.

Only borrowed for a while

There is a fitting story in the Bible which illustrates this point well, namely the Parable of the Rich Fool: “He then told them a parable: ‘The land of a certain rich man produced an abundant crop, so he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to myself, ‘You have plenty of goods stored up for many years; relax, eat, drink, celebrate!’” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded back from you, but who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” So it is with the one who stores up riches for himself, but is not rich toward God’” (Luke 12: 16–21, New English Translation). What a poor rich man!

So what is important?

A believing Christian would answer that question by saying: “It is important to be with the Lord, to be pleasing to Him, to keep His commandments, to be a blessing, to be a witness of Jesus Christ in the world, to ensure that the gospel remains a joyful message, and to live!” And even for the more reserved of our fellow believers, peace, a healthy environment, and a fairer distribution of earthly resources are more important than personal happiness at the expense of others.

So far, so good. These ideas are par for the course in certain circles. But what does the reality look like? Wars, conflicts, and attacks still happen in our time. In fact, there can even be similar disputes in Christian households. It seems that egocentric thinking has not been much diminished by the fact that the church calendar calls for introspection. Repentance and abstinence are not exactly mankind’s favourite subjects!

Our decision

And the One for whom we Christians are named—Jesus Christ—gave us a good example: He fasted for 40 days—and that was in the wilderness, under even more difficult conditions. The words of temptation which the devil addressed to Him are still the subject of church sermons to this day, and yet they seem unrealistic and exaggerated to many a listener. And even as these listeners entertain such thoughts, they find themselves yielding to the pull of overstated self-love: “I can do anything, I know everything, I want, I think, I wish…” So many messages of our time begin with the pronoun “I”.

The Christian period of Lent begins on 17 February and lasts for 40 days, all the way to Holy Saturday (the day after Good Friday). Before the great resurrection of the Lord can be celebrated, we must still become calm and contemplative in our souls. Whatever we do or neglect to do is something we decide all on our own. But a little nudge in the direction of reflection is not a bad idea.

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Peter Johanning