Is fasting a practice that Christians share with other believers? Can fasting and prayer really change the course of history? What is the meaning of fasting for peace? The Lenten season is a good opportunity to consider such questions.
In antiquity, only religious fasting was known; today, there exists political and social fasting (hunger strikes), health and ideological fasting (so-called cleansing fasts), pathological fasting (anorexia and other serious illnesses), aesthetic fasting (in which the vice of gluttony is sometimes mortified only to obey the other vice of vanity -- oh, to be thin!). There is also the fast imposed upon human beings who lack the indispensable minimum of food, and die of hunger. In themselves, these fasts have nothing to do with religious reasons.
Many of the great world religions encourage fasting at specific times during the year. One need only think of the seriousness with which Muslims undertake fasting during Ramadan, or the fasting of Jews during Yom Kippur.
For my part, I learned the real meaning of fasting from my Muslim neighbours during my years of graduate studies in the Old City of Jerusalem, and from my Jewish colleagues at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.
The Old Testament lists fasting among the cornerstones of the spirituality of Israel: "Prayer is good when accompanied by fasting, almsgiving and justice" (Tobit 12:8). Fasting implies an attitude of faith, humility and complete dependence upon God.
Jesus gave precise instructions to his disciples that their fasting should never be tainted by ostentation and hypocrisy. Christians are strongly encouraged to fast during the season of Lent (which began on Ash Wednesday, March 1). For Catholics, two days of the year are established as days of strict fasting and abstinence from meat: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (April 14 this year).
Fasting has several perspectives in biblical and Christian tradition. The practice looks to the past, present and future. We look to the past, as recognition of offences committed against God and others. We look to the present -- in order that we may learn to open our eyes to others and to the world around us. We look to the future -- in order that we may open our hearts to the realities of God and, by the gift of divine mercy, renew the bond of communion with all people and with the whole of creation.
Fasting is important to people of other religions who refuse to embrace the logic of war and violence and truly desire peace. Those who fast for peace believe that God can change the course of history, and fasting and prayer are a strong sign directed to his heart so that he will have mercy on humanity.
The idea of fasting is to allow ourselves to become empty so that God can truly fill us with desire for peace. There is a need for purification, because what is happening in the world is the result of the logic of egoism. Humanity is in need of purification.
We live in a culture dominated by materialism and unbridled consumerism. Fasting helps us not to be reduced to pure "consumers"; it helps us to acquire self-control. It predisposes us to the encounter with God, and it makes us more attentive to the needs of the poor. In this way, fasting can be a very important element in inter-religious dialogue.