Arthur Middleton on the Lenten Fast
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing in those days; and when they were ended, he was hungry… (Luke 4.1-2)
“Fasting” is the word used in earlier translations. It is a practice not confined to Christianity, being a physical exercise for a spiritual end. It is not particularly fashionable today among Christians. Dieting is more concerned for the health of the body; fasting is concerned for the health of the soul, but has secondary effects in making for a healthier body. Unlike dieting, fasting is always accompanied by prayer. Jesus goes into the wilderness to fast and to pray. His concern is to find out what God wanted him to do and how he was to do it. His way of finding was fraught with many temptations. His preparation in the wilderness proved to be the springboard to his whole life and ministry. It was here that he found that God’s way for him was to be by death and resurrection.
In one of his Lenten sermons St Leo the Great reminded his congregation of the Hebrews being punished for their sins by the tyranny of the Philistines. In order to overcome their enemies they restored their powers of mind and body by fasting. They realized that they deserved subjection under the Philistines for neglecting God’s will. They knew it was useless to fight with weapons until they had first confronted and withstood their sin, so they abstained from food and drink. Their fasting alerted them in mind and body; increasing their concentration and resolve, and when their enemies attacked them they defeated them. This they had found impossible to do before disciplining themselves by fasting and prayer.
Leo goes on to remind us that we are surrounded by many oppositions and conflicts within ourselves. These may be cured by a little carefulness, he tells us, if only we will use the same means. Our enemies are chiefly spiritual enemies. If we can conquer them by God’s grace, enabling us to correct our ways in favour of God’s ways, then what weakens us bodily will even give way before us. In choosing God’s way as Jesus did, we will amend our lives. It is this amending of our lives that will weaken those things in us that we thought unconquerable.
This is why we fast and pray and abstain in Lent – to confront in ourselves those things that prevent us from doing things in God’s way. The more zealous we are for our salvation the more determined will be the attacks of temptation – look at Jesus in the wilderness. But what you see in Jesus is this that the divine is stronger than the human. So with us “stronger is He that is in us than he that is against us”, because it was for this that the Lord allowed himself to be tempted by the tempter, that we might be taught by his example as well as fortified by his aid.
Fasting and Abstinence
How can we become more alert spiritually by sharpening these weapons of fasting and prayer? First, in a physical way. Is there something that you can give up in your daily or weekly menus? Could you have a day when you only eat dry toast and drink water? On Wednesdays and Fridays you could avoid meat and eat only vegetables or fish. Or on one day you could just have a cup of tea at midday or in the evening. These particular occasions might become in time opportunities for more intense and extended prayer. The money you save can be given to charity. Perhaps give up bread, or butter, or potatoes for the whole of Lent; but if you are invited out then you must eat what is put in front of you – because the rule of charity overrules that of fasting. Let such abstinence allow you to become more alert in mind and body to what God asks of you in meeting the temptations that continually beset you.
Secondly, is it not time we returned to fasting before Holy Communion? It used to be from midnight that no solid food would pass our lips. Now there is a rule of one hour. At least don’t have a great breakfast before receiving Communion. Fasting before Communion is a very ancient practice from the beginning of the Church, so that the first food to pass our lips on the Lord’s Day is the Body and Blood of Christ. The emptiness of hunger is to help increase our hunger for God.
Thirdly, there is also moral abstinence. Physical abstinence is useless if the strength of the soul is not developed. When the outer man is somewhat subdued, let the inner man be somewhat refreshed; and when bodily excess is denied to our flesh, let our mind be invigorated by spiritual delights.
The great forty days of Lent become for us a time of preparation for Easter, a time to enter into a deeper understanding of our part in Christ’s way of death and resurrection – what is to be the secret of our lives, what is to be God’s way of salvation for us. The Church calls us to take fasting seriously.