Why We Fast

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This is the Shrove Tuesday reflection, the day before the Missio Lent series begins. Read the rest here.

Today is Mardi Gras, more affectionately known as Fat Tuesday, a holiday which I have fond memories celebrating while growing up. The local radio station in my small, Midwestern town held an annual call-in contest on Fat Tuesday in which contestants wrote poems in honor of the sweet, indulgent bliss of Paczkis (a Polish pastry, pronounced “pon-shkee”) and then called into the station to read their poems on the airways so as to win a free box of these delectable delights from a local bakery. Every year feelings of excited fervor welled up within my soul—or stomach—as I penned my poem and nervously clutched the phone in the hopes that I might be a lucky winner once again. O the grace of Fat Tuesday!

But then came Ash Wednesday, which we did not observe because that was “Catholic” and we weren’t Catholic. Of course, I enjoyed Fat Tuesday because I liked to indulge my appetites, but not Ash Wednesday—not Lent for that matter—because all those ashy crosses on people’s foreheads and Friday fasts from meat and religious versions of New Years resolutions were just meaningless traditions—empty rituals—that had no place in my iconoclastic faith.

But lately I’ve been rethinking some of these “meaningless traditions.” Though admittedly more of a spiritual discipline than a church tradition, I’ve recently begun to think through the purpose and practice of fasting, which played no role in my faith for the first 24 years of my life.

So why fast?

It certainly seems counter-intuitive to deliberately separate ourselves from enjoying the good things God has so richly provided—certainly counter in our modern, American context of plenty. Why not just always give thanks to God, and then—as the writer of Ecclesiastes so eloquently puts it—eat, drink, and be merry?

In thinking through all of this, I read a passage of scripture I’m sure I’ve read a thousand times, the account of the Last Supper as told by Luke. Unassumingly, I read these words of Jesus to his disciples:

“I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I shall never again eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”

Then he passes the cup to his disciples and adds:

“Take this and share it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine from now on until the kingdom of God comes.”

If there is anyone in the cosmos who has every right to eat, drink, and be merry, it is Jesus, who overcame 33 years of life as a suffering servant, who died a torturous death on a cross, and who descended into Hell itself. Now He is seated at the right hand of the Heavenly Father in all His glory. It’s His turn to party.

Instead, He fasts. For us. For the coming of the Kingdom in all its fullness. Jesus is waiting to feast for the day when we’ll all be gathered around the table together at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.

He fasts longing to be joined with us. We should fast longing to be joined with Him.

What I’ve realized while “living into” this discipline of fasting is how much I not only enjoy earthly blessings, but also how much I depend on them. At the end of a day of fasting with fatigue crushing in, I realize how dependent I am, how weak I am, and how much I need God. I hope this realization will grow into a deeper yearning to be with God that only He can satisfy, because though He is in the throne room of Heaven in all its splendor, He longs to be with me.

So Lent is upon us, and for thousands of years, Christians of all stripes have fasted together for a season in anticipation of the very weekend that justifies our whole religion. This is no mere meaningless tradition. I’ve come to realize that what makes a tradition meaningless is not anything intrinsic to the tradition itself, but rather our lack of understanding of the meaning of the tradition. I’m grateful that I am beginning to realize just how meaningful this Lenten tradition is, and I think I’m now ready to observe the very holiday that logically follows Fat Tuesday.

May this be a season to fast and to hunger for God who alone satisfies our deepest longings and desires.

Jay Bilsborrow was an intern at The Washington Institute and attended Emory Law School. TWI originally published this essay in 2012.

photo: George Bosela

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