Fasting has an important place in all the great religions. The Old Testament lists fasting among the cornerstones of the spirituality of Israel: "Prayer is good when accompanied by fasting, almsgiving and justice" (Tob 12:8). Fasting implies an attitude of faith, humility and complete dependence upon God. Fasting is used to prepare to meet God (cf. Ex 34:28; 1 Kgs 19:8; Dan 9:3); to prepare for a difficult task (cf. Jgs 20:26; Es 4:16) or to seek pardon for an offence (cf. 1 Kgs 21:27); to express grief in the wake of domestic or n misfortune (cf. 1 Sam 7:6; 2 Sam 1:12; Bar 1:5). Fasting, inseparable from prayer and justice, is directed above all to conversion of heart, without which -- as the Prophets declared (cf. Is 58:2-11; Jer 14:12; Zech 7:5-14) -- it is meaningless.
Before beginning his public mission, Jesus, driven by the Holy Spirit, fasted for forty days as an expression of his trusting abandonment to the Father's saving plan (cf. Mt 4:1-4). He gave precise instructions to his disciples that their fasting should never be tainted by ostentation and hypocrisy (cf. Mt 6:16-18).
Following the biblical tradition, the Fathers held fasting in high esteem. In their view, the practice of fasting made the faithful ready for nourishment of another kind: the food of the Word of God (cf. Mt 4:4) and of fulfillment of the Father's will (cf. Jn 4:34). Fasting is closely connected to prayer, it strengthens virtue, inspires mercy, implores divine assistance and leads to conversion of heart.
It is in this double sense – imploring the grace of Almighty God and profound inner conversion – that we are called to accept Pope Francis’ invitation to fast on Saturday, September 7, 2013. For without the Lord's help it will not be possible to find a solution to the tragic situations that have unfolded in Syria and other places in the Middle East. What is urgently required to reverse the bloodshed, violence, terrorism and death dealing forces is a deep conversion of mind and heart of all peoples concerned.
The practice of fasting looks to the past, present and future: to the past, as a recognition of offences committed against God and others; to the present, in order that we may learn to open our eyes to others and to the world around us; 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, accepting the responsibility which each of us has in history.
How do we fast?
The idea of fasting is to allow ourselves to become empty so that God can truly fill us with desires for peace. Fasting does not mean that we do not eat anything. Local tradition will suggest the best form of fasting to adopt: eating only one meal, or taking only "bread and water", or waiting until sundown before eating. We should drink liquids necessary for maintaining a healthy condition. We could abstain from drinking or eating things we enjoy. For some, the day of fast will mean that we do not eat any solid foods from Friday evening until sundown Saturday. Those who are in poor health or experiencing a medical condition or are too young or too old are exempt from fasting. If fasting is not possible because of a health condition, we may always spend extra time in prayer and perform acts of charity.
The important thing is to keep with the spirit of fasting. Key to all of our fasting is the spirit of prayerfulness that we maintain throughout the day. Prayer is the central moment in which to listen to God and fill the "void" created in us by the purification of fasting. The heart of each one of us in fact must be the starting-point for the building of peace: it is through the heart that God acts and judges, heals and saves.