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By Augustine Agwulonu
Fri, 12 Feb 2016


Why do you fast? When should you fast? How much should you fast? In a religious culture where the practice of fasting is recurrent, why does a particular group of people not fast?

The last question was posed by John's disciples, who approached Jesus. They stated that they and the Pharisees do not only fast, but they fast much. But Jesus's disciples do not fast at all. So, why are they not observing the religious practice of fasting?
Jesus answered them with a rhetorical question. He employed a powerful image of the presence of the bridegroom. In other words, it would be curious, as well as strange, to expect those who attended a weeding feast not to eat or to fast.

Fasting is a noble religious practice. It was an indispensable feature of Judaism. We remember the Pharisee in the temple. Part of his religious achievements was that he fasted three times a week. It was not just a private act, but a public practice. It was not an observance hidden from anybody. Perhaps this is the reason why Jesus demands that fasting should be done in secret. One should take every precaution to make sure that fasting was not exposed to public knowledge. According to Jesus, fasting was only meritorious if done in secret (see Mt 6:16f).

The purpose of fasting is not to draw attention to oneself, but it is rather an expression of one's relationship with God. It is a way of seeking God's face. It is an activity meant to please God and not to draw accolades from human beings. John the Baptist fasted on honey and locusts in the wilderness. We are not told that the Prophet Elijah ate anything as he walked forty days and nights to get to the mountain, where he was to meet with God. The same is true of Moses. As he was in the cloud of the mountain, he fasted.

Another point is the condition of Jesus's disciples. It is as if eating for them was sporadic, instead of regular. Remember when Jesus had to bundle them away to a lonely place. The reason was that so many people were coming and going that they had no time, even to eat (see Mk 6:31). For Jesus's disciples, who hardly find the time to eat, to be accused of not fasting, could mean being overzealous on the part of the accusers.

The beauty and quality of religious observances do not lie in comparing what one does or does not do with what others do or do not do. Religious practices are free acts by free persons. The morality of fasting requires honesty of purpose, truthfulness and the desire to please God, rather than human beings. Fasting is not a religious competition. It is something that one does according to strength, time and with the proper intention. This is why the Prophet Isaiah condemns fasting without proper religious and spiritual dispositions. He condemns such fasting during which the following are done: " Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits, and drive all your laborers. Yes, your fast ends in quarreling and fighting, striking with wicked claw." The purpose of fasting, according to Isaiah is so that one would be heard on high: "Would that today you might fast so as to make your voice heard on high!"

Fasting requires the correct disposition and right attitude towards God and neighbor. Fasting is an act of humility and not something that fuels pride. Fasting is an act of longing for God, who is the true satisfaction of all human desires and deeper spiritual hunger. Fasting should be a symbolic exercise of self-emptying, in order that God may fill us. Fasting demonstrates that man does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from God's mouth (see Mt 4:4). Fasting means swearing to God, that nothing but him can quench our hunger and satisfy us.

Jesus, give us the bread of life. Bless us with your living water. And grant us your abundant life. Amen.


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