Fasting, Mainstream Culture, and Liturgy

Not long ago, people in Western cultures were familiar with three different kinds of fasting: the absolute fast required before certain blood tests, the Islamic fast of Ramadan, and the requirement that Christians refrain from meat on Fridays during Lent. The remnants of the Christian Lenten Friday fast are still alive in some cities, symbolized by community fish fries and specials on fish in local restaurants.

As a child, I knew these fasting traditions, and could add two additional fasts to the list: Eastern Christians were supposed to refrain from meat and dairy products throughout Lent and Holy Week, and we weren’t allowed to eat breakfast before receiving Communion at the Divine Liturgy. Faithful observed the rules to varying degrees: I knew some folks who would eat pizza without cheese and have met others who won’t brush their teeth before the Liturgy for fear of accidentally swallowing water. We fasted during Lent, along with the other three seasonal fasts of the liturgical year (forty days before Christmas, two weeks before the Dormition Feast, and for some days before the feast of saints Peter and Paul). The fast from meat and dairy is also appointed to most Wednesdays and Fridays of the year, along with other solemnities (e.g., the Exaltation of the Cross on September 14 and the eves of Christmas and Theophany).  The general spirit of fasting was penitential: to discipline one’s self, and learn how to fast from sin, and to depend on God alone. The pre-Eucharist fast was primarily eschatological, to receive the gift of Christ in communion in preparation for eternal life in and with him. Like all liturgical practices, fasting had varying levels of observance and diverse emphases in meaning among the people of the parishes, and this remains true today.

Fasting introduced a temporary dietary change, and to be honest, I often embraced the season as an opportunity to lose weight. The dietary component contributed to weight loss – at least some years, when I was younger. I was hardly alone in hoping for weight loss during Lent: Church culture celebrated Lent as a chance to lose some weight by reducing fattier meats and dairy and replacing them with veggies. Obviously, this strategy can mislead one if they replace proteins with carbs, but the notion of fasting as eating lighter remains alive and well among Eastern Christian faithful today.

Fasting and Weight Loss: New Methods

About twenty or so years ago, At the time, Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, and Slim Fast were the go-to methods and sources for weight loss – not fasting. But things have changed. .A few months ago, I caught an excerpt of a morning network show featuring new weight loss methods. These methods include high protein diets (e.g., Atkins and keto) and various approaches to intermittent fasting. This particular episode featured two people who lost weight through approaches to intermittent fasting. The first person lost weight by fasting for 24 hours on two different days of the week. The second person lost weight through the 18/6 method – fasting for 18 hours a day and having two modest meals during the other six hours. Doctors debated the merits and risks of these methods while congratulating the people who lost weight on their success. New stories and testimonials appear every day chronicling people’s struggles with these weight-loss methods and celebrating their successes. The jury is still out on whether or not fasting can be used as a method for sustaining weight once one reaches their desired goal. The verdict on society’s awareness of fasting as a conscious exercise of the body is in: fasting belongs to quotidien life and vocabulary. It’s not just something one does once-in-a-blue-moon for a blood test, nor is it relegated to fish-instead-of-meat or Ramadan: anyone can do it, and many people do it on a weekly basis.

We should make no assumptions about the motivations for weight loss – for many, it’s not merely a matter of vanity, but a desire to be healthy. If it’s done properly and in dialogue with a physician and nutritionist, fasting can contribute to healthier circulation, lower heart disease, and mitigate against diabetes, not to mention reducing the stress on our joints. One cold fact remains obscure in the larger discussion about fasting and weight loss: those who fast have access to the foods that are compatible with weight loss. They can afford to customize their diet to optimize their chances of reaching the desired weight. Taking on a fast diet is a first-world luxury. Unhealthy food can be inexpensive and easily accessible, especially when one needs to purchase a quantity of food that feeds a family. A bucket of fried chicken with a discount for a side of mashed potatoes and gravy is more affordable than boneless chicken thighs marinated in low-sodium teriyaki sauce with organic roasted vegetables as a side. (One could delve more deeply into the ethical dilemmas of a diet based on intermittent fasting, especially when we consider how consumerism drives customization with such practices, but let’s leave that for an expert in culture).

Fasting as an Act of Love  

Is it possible to reconcile today’s fast diets with the Christian traditions and purpose of fasting? Let’s begin by affirming the good aspects of contemporary fasting practices. Adopting a healthy diet that maintains an optimal weight and reduces the risk of disease is a good aspiration. Christianity embraces a humanity that seeks to be whole and fasting can contribute to improving human health. The question concerns the compatibility of fasting methods with service to others. I suggest that it is possible to fast as an act of love for others, as fasting has an organic relationship with almsgiving and prayer. A smart priest suggested that families with ample financial means eat rice and beans for dinner a few times a week during Lent, to understand how their neighbors who are financially struggling keep costs low while feeding families. Fasting is one practice that enables the practitioner to become aware of their less fortunate brothers and sisters: not only does Lenten lightness capacitate one to become aware of those who have less access to healthy food, but it can drive one to use the money they have saved to provide food for those in need, one way of fulfilling Jesus’ commandment in Matthew 25:31-46.

Fasting can also help us grow more attentive to the need to share food with those who are hungry. Think of the energy we devote to researching food and shopping carefully to fulfill our goal for weight maintenance. What if fasting became a community enterprise, to work together at the local parish level to share the healthy foods we have with those lacking the financial means to fresh food? Buying canned food and instant soups is a good way to feed those in need of a meal. But shouldn’t everyone have access to the healthy foods that contribute to making humans whole? The connection between fasting and almsgiving can become more vibrant if we acknowledge healthy food as a gift given to all, and not just some. Maintaining a low inventory of food at home can engender appreciation for access to food, much as any one of us hopes to have but one slice of a special cake or pie served at a community meal. Today’s fasting practices can become much more potent if they partner with the Christian tradition of fasting and reveal good, healthy foods as intended for all humankind, regardless of one’s income. Christians can make a difference by embracing fasting as an opportunity to act in love for the sake of others.

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  1. Thus wrote Mahatma Gandhi: “My fast is among other things meant to qualify me for achieving that equal and selfless love”.

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