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“When you fast” means a private and voluntary fast apart from legally designated fasting, especially on the day of atonement. The Pharisees fasted on Thursday remembering Moses’ ascendance to Mount Sinai and on Monday remembering his descending from the mountain. Such voluntary fasting should not be seeking public recognition.

Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights to prepare for his public ministry (Mt 4:2). Moses also fasted on Mount Sinai to prepare for receiving the Ten Commandments from God. Anna “worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer” (Lk 2:37) for many years in the Temple before she welcomed the Infant Jesus. For the early Church leaders, prayer was part of fasting (Acts 13:2-3). So fasting is essentially part of prayer and a period of communion with God.

When a believer is in heavenly bliss, the person will not feel hunger or thirst as had happened in the case of Moses and Jesus for forty days. The fasting period should be a time focused on God whereby one spends more time on one’s spiritual growth. Fasting shall include a reflective reading of the Bible, participation in the liturgy, reconciliation with God and fellow humans, improving life, and helping the needy. Therefore, alms and prayer are interlinked with fasting. While favoring fasting, the issue Jesus raised was the wrong intention behind fasting and the contrived gesture people used as a façade.

People understand and observe fasting in different ways:
1. Supernatural fast: Moses had this type of fasting where he did not eat and drink for 40 days and nights. Supernatural enablement is needed to survive such fasting.
2. Full fast: This is a complete fast without eating and drinking for a few days, like a three-day fast (Ezr 10:6; Esth 4:16; Acts 9:9). Such a fast is unhealthy if it lasts over three days.
3. Liquid fast: Some people abstain from food and drink except for water for a few days. That Jesus did not eat for 40 days was a miraculous event (Mt 4:2-3; Lk 4:2). The Gospels do not specify whether Jesus drank water during this fasting.
4. Partial fast: This is abstention from some particular food for a specific period. Daniel ate only vegetables and drank only water and avoided king’s food and wine for his three-year training in Babylon (Dan 1:5,8,12). When he mourned for three weeks, he ate “no savoury food, took no meat or wine, and did not anoint” (Dan 10:3). During the Great Fast of 40 or 50 days, some abstain from meat, sweet items, or alcoholic drinks. Others abstain from a few select items on Fridays and days of abstinence.
5. Skipping meal: Most people opt to skip a meal or have one meal a day supplementing them with snacks.

Usually, people do this on the day of imposition of ashes and Fridays of lent, including Passion Friday. The duration of one’s fast can also vary. It can be one day or part of a day (Judg 20:26; 1 Sam 7:6; 2 Sam 1:12; 2 Sam 3:35), three days (Esth 4:16; Acts 9:9), seven days (1 Sam 31:13; 2 Sam 16:18), 14 days (Acts 27:33-34), 21 days (Dan 10:3), or 40 days (Deut 9:9; 1 Kgs 19:8; Mt 4:2). Fasting can be continuous for intermittent days like one day a week. The Pharisees used to fast twice a week as clear from the prayer of the publican and Pharisee in the Temple (Lk 18:12).

The reasons for fasting can be:
1. To express our devotion to God (Lk 2:37),
2. To gain spiritual strength (Mt 17:21),
3. To humble ourselves before God for His support (Ezr 8:21),
4. Before making important decisions (Judg 20:26),
5. For healing (2 Sam 12:16-18), for an end of a pandemic, war, or any such intention,
6. To get protection from God against enemies (2 Chr 20:1-4),
7. For forgiveness of sins (Jonah 3:4-10; 1 Sam 7:6),
8. To express grief at the loss of a dear one (1 Sam 31:13, 2 Sam 1:12).

Fasting will be effective when we humble ourselves before the LORD, repent of our sins, and resolve to sin no more. After Jonah’s preaching, the king of Nineveh proclaimed throughout his nation, “Man and beast alike must be covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God; they all must turn from their evil way and from the violence of their hands” (Jonah 3:8).

Reading and reflecting on the Scriptures will be effective as part of fasting and resistance to temptations. The defense of Jesus to overcome his temptations during his 40-day fast was Sacred Scripture. Fasting helps us to remain close to God through reconciliation, evasion of sins, experiencing spiritual joy, sharing in the sufferings of those who starve, and increasing in self-control. It calls for a change on our part from our sinful way of life. “So one who fasts for sins, but goes and commits them again: Who will hear his prayer, what is gained by mortification?” (Sir 34:31).

The money we would have used for the food and drink on the day of fasting should be shared with the poor or the starving. The time we save from skipping the meal should be used for extra prayer. Avoiding entertainment or social media and devoting that time to prayer is another way of fasting. Instead of listening to secular music, some people devote time to spiritual channels during the period of the Great Lent. Jesus wants to avoid exhibitionism and self-projection in these to evade human recognition.

Jesus endorsed fasting with the stipulation that the believer avoid exhibitionism of piety through outward appearances (Mt 6:16-18). The Pharisees reflected the physical effect of their fasting on their faces and in their appearance by way of smearing themselves with ashes, formal uncleanliness including hair overgrowth, wearing a gloomy look and the like.

God had criticized Israel for their hypocritical fasting, “See, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits and drive all your laborers. See, you fast only to quarrel and fight and to strike with a wicked fist! Do not fast as you do today to make your voice heard on high! Is this the manner of fasting I would choose a day to afflict oneself? To bow one’s head like a reed, and lie upon sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?” (Isa 58:3-5)

Jesus instructed, “When you fast anoint your head and wash your face” (Mt 5:17). The Jews routinely washed their bodies, especially their hands and face, and anointed themselves with fragrant olive oil. In a warm climate, these were necessary for better health and hygiene (Jn 12:3; Jas 5:14). Anointing, washing, and changing clothes were signs of joy and a normal life. Naomi instructed Ruth, “go bathe and anoint yourself; then put on your best attire” to end her widowhood before approaching Boaz (Ruth 3:3). David fasted and prayed for seven days when his son from Bathsheba was seriously sick. When the child died on the seventh day, he ended his fast. “Rising from the ground, David washed and anointed himself, and changed his clothes. Then he went to the house of the LORD and worshiped. He returned to his own house and asked for food; they set it before him, and he ate” (2 Sam 12:20).

The elders of Israel had prohibited the anointing of the head and the washing of the face during the fast on the Day of Atonement. The Jews who practiced private fasting followed the same on other days, like Mondays and Thursdays, so their fasting was noticeable to the public. Jesus gave importance to the spirit behind the fast, like extra prayer, repentance, restitution, and acts of charity than external acts of piety. He asked those who fasted to appear normal while they develop an internal disposition acceptable to God. Jesus did not literally mean to have one’s head anointed and one’s face washed, but rather that the person should not appear any different because of his fasting.

Jesus advised his disciples that they also must fast when it is time for them to do so. The disciples of John the Baptist asked Jesus, “‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast much, but your disciples do not fast?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast’” (Mt 9:14-15). Hence, his disciples are per se not exempt from fasting. They should avoid hypocrisy, vainglory, and pretension in religious practices, which were characteristics of the self- righteous Pharisees.

The goal of fasting is not to please or gain a reward from fellow humans, but from God. Our omniscient God understands the actions and intentions of the believer who fasts in secret. Jesus assured a reward for such genuine fasting.


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