Mt. 6:16-18, “Fasting”, Fourth Wednesday in Lent, 22 Mar 2017
As a novice pastor in my first church, I had the idea one Holy Week that I would fast in the days leading up to Easter. So, not knowing what I was doing, and a bit fearful because I operate on a thin margin of reserve when it comes to weight, I abstained from food for nearly three days, from breakfast on Maundy Thursday, to Easter Eve. I did not advertise it. Only Erin knew. But I was determined. All I consumed during that time was water. I don’t recommend this for everyone. Many of us deal with health concerns. I have not fasted for that amount of time since then. At the risk of sounding like a humble braggart, especially in light of the text, which asks that we fast in secret, I wish to share with you a testimony of sorts about what I learned from this first serious foray into this particular spiritual discipline.
First, I learned that Jesus preached this command for a good reason. Because even though I didn’t tell anyone, it was kind of like when someone becomes a vegan, I wanted everyone to know. Jesus says, “Don’t fast like the hypocrites, who look dismal, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others they’re fasting.” One translation says, “for they neglect their appearance.” Sunken eyes, long in the face, greasy hair. And you know that “hurt dog” look people get? The one that begs the question, “Are you okay?” These were the characteristics of my temptation. And I kept wanting Erin to pamper me and ask me how was I doing and try to talk me out of it.
The second thing I learned was just the very beginning of what serious hunger pangs feel like. They can be maddening. They come in waves and consume your thoughts and make you self-centered. You’re even tempted to become ravenous. You get to the point where decaf herbal green tea tastes like Coca-Cola. A rice cake would be a feast. By Saturday morning, I was dreaming of homemade pancakes, sausage, syrup, orange juice, coffee. Nope! Water. And hunger. But those pangs did something else to me. They reminded me of the sick and dying, who cannot eat, and who must endure hunger in their last days. They reminded me of the children in our community who fasted everyday whether they wanted to or not, who depended on school for breakfast and lunch, and for whom dinner was a question mark. And the pangs reminded me of people around the world who face far fiercer hunger pangs for months, years, or a lifetime. So the first thing I learned was that I was a hypocrite, but the hunger pangs taught me that I didn’t have to be. I could identify, in a small but significant new way, with people’s pain as I couldn’t have before.
The third thing I learned was the most surprising of all. Erin and I had a date at the local steakhouse that Saturday evening, Easter Eve, where I planned to break my fast. I’d been dreaming about it all that day. But I won’t forget what happened when the server brought the meal. There it was. Steak. Baked potato. The stuff of my dreams. And I reached for my fork and knife, but then only reluctantly. I looked up at Erin and said, “It’s the strangest thing…I’m not hungry.” In fact, I felt energized, as if I could go on for days longer. Jesus’ words flashed out at me, “You don’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” It’s true.
This revelation is common to those who fast regularly, and for much longer than I ever have. One of the most famous fasters I’ve ever known was not a Christian, but a Muslim. The former NBA All-Star, Hakeem Olajuwon, who, during Ramadan, would go all day without eating or drinking, and then play an entire basketball game, and his numbers would go up (In February 1995, during the month of Ramadan, he was named NBA Player of the Month). But what struck his teammates about his fasting was that he never winced, or looked downcast. They’d be drinking their Gatorade beside him during timeouts, and he’d go on as if nothing were happening. After moving to Jordan, he said he preferred fasting in the United States, because it’s more challenging. “It’s like somebody who swims in a pool or somebody who is swimming in the ocean,” he said. “The ocean is stronger so makes a better swimmer.”
And we do swim in an ocean of gluttony. What should really make us wince is the fact that Americans waste nearly 50% of our produce—about 60 billion tons of food—a year. The way we have arranged our desires is reflected in our food production and consumption. We live like this because we think we need more than enough. But fasting in secret reveals an alternative for people of faith. Fasting in secret creates the conditions for the visceral revelation that we’re not always right about what we think we need. By fasting in secret, we constrain our mortal appetites in order that God may whet our appetite for the divine.
Therefore, Christians don’t look dismal when we fast because we find ourselves entering the joy of God’s providence. When we fast faithfully, the deprivation of food teaches us just how completely God nourishes and sustains us.
To be sure, we can fast any time of year. But fasting during Lent prepares our empty bellies to be filled with the good news of the empty tomb. So, my fellow well-meaning foodies—Asheville’s finest—as we are able, may we put down our forks for time, dot the crowns of our heads with oil, and, in secret, feast on the Word, with whom we will never go hungry, and in whom we will never thirst.