Though its influence among Christians in the West may be waning, the sacred art of fasting is flourishing in the rest of the world.
This October all adult and physically capable Muslims abstain from food, water and sexual relations from dawn to sunset during the lunar month of Ramadan (October 5 to November 3). Approximately one billion Muslims around the globe will be joined in their fast by about 14 million Jews worldwide on Yom Kippur (Oct 12, 13), the Day of Atonement, the single holiest day in the Jewish year. And in mid-November, Eastern Orthodox Christians throughout the world will begin their forty-day vegetarian Advent fast in preparation for the feast of the Nativity.
In every culture and religion in history, fasting has been an instinctive and essential language in our communicating with the Divine. As a religious act it increases our sensitivity to the mystery of God always and everywhere present to us. It is a passageway into the world of spirit that enables us to explore its territory and return with a wisdom necessary for living a fulfilled life.
The emphasis placed on fasting varies among different faith traditions—a call to compassion for the needy, a cry of distress, a discipline of self-restraint—but it is found in all of them. The sheer universality of the practice should make those who have forgotten the reasons and the rituals pause and reflect on what they are missing.
In Judaism, there are three motifs. First, purification in preparation for some religious duty. Moses remained fasting on Sinai for forty days and nights when about to receive the Ten Commandments and Daniel fasted for a considerable time seeking to know God’s will.
Second, as a manifestation of mourning. One of the distinctive characteristics of fasting in Judaism is the selection of days that commemorate calamities in war, the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the assassination of leaders, the Holocaust, and the death of loved ones. Judaism is the only religion in which fasting is directly tied to the recollection of tragedies in the people’s history.
Third, as an act of repentance and atonement. Yom Kippur is one of the most observed holidays in the Jewish year. Many Jews who do not observe other Jewish customs will refrain from work, fast, and attend synagogue services on this day. It is a day of spiritual renewal and critical self-examination when people atone for the sins of the past year. It is a complete 25-hour fast beginning at sundown the evening before Yom Kippur and ending with nightfall on the day itself.
For the eight million Muslims in North America, the ninth month on the Islamic calendar (Ramadan) is a time of inner-reflection, cultivation of Allah-consciousness, and self-control. Muslims think of it as a time of spiritual tune-up in the year. Chief among the reasons for fasting is the desire to sharpen awareness of God throughout the day. It is undertaken in obedience to and out of love for God.
Strange though it may seem to the uninitiated, the month of fasting in Islam is a month of worship welcomed with energy and happiness. It is one of the five pillars of Islam, functioning like a protective shield and guarding the believer from all kinds of evil, corrupt, and destructive forces.
Fasting in the practice of Eastern Christians emphasizes that at all times it is essential to bear in mind “that sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under the law but under grace” ( Rom. 6:14) and that “the letter kills but the spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). The rules of fasting apply to dairy, meat, wine, and olive oil.
While these regulations are to be taken seriously, they are not to be interpreted with dour legalism, “for the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17).”
Fasting holds an important place in the three Abrahamic religions. While Western Christians are quick to cite prayer, fasting, and works of charity as a tripod for the spiritual life, in the practice of most, the middle leg is seriously listing. The interreligious encounter is a grace of our time in that it provides us with both challenge and inspiration.