In 331 A.D., Athanasius I of Alexandria (c. 296–298 – 2 May 373), who was also called Athanasius the Great, Athanasius the Confessor, Athanasius the Apostolic, and who served as the 20th Bishop and Pope of Alexandria and is regarded as one of the Church Fathers, wrote to the church in Alexandria as was his regular custom—a 3rd-century newsletter, if you will. In his “Festal Letters,” he outlined the importance of a period of forty days of fasting prior to, but not inclusive of, the stricter fast of Holy Week. Exhorting to his flock, Athanasius wrote to motivate the people, “to the end that while all the world is fasting, we who are in Egypt should not become a laughing-stock as the only people who do not fast but take our pleasure in those days.” While there was some discussion of the best methods of Lenten observance, fasting was not in dispute as a powerful Lenten discipline.
Almost two millennia later, Steven R. Harmon, author of Ecumenism Means You, Too, Frederica Mathews-Green, author of The Jesus Prayer, and Michael Horton, author of The Gospel-Driven Life, add to the conversation in a joint article in Christianity Today. Here, they promote fasting as a foundational and wholistic practice:
Lent is a time of year to remember that God has seen fit to make us not airy spirits but embodied human beings living in a beautiful, material world. The soul fills the body the way fire fills a lump of coal, and what the body learns, the soul absorbs as well. Spiritual disciplines such as fasting are analogous to weight-lifting equipment. One who uses them in a disciplined way will be stronger, not just when he’s lifting weights, but also for every situation he meets.
The early Church Fathers recognized about the soul what we have come to understand about our physical selves: that we must exercise or risk atrophy and decline. Modern advances in Alzheimer’s research have categorically shown the value of “mental exercise” in staving off or decreasing the advance of the disease; physical therapy is simply necessary after injury or surgery to rebuild the afflicted area; and in all areas of our lives, exercise is a creation-based component of how we grow and prosper. To complete the analogy, then, Lent is an ancient observance that has stood the test of time because it is a “training camp” for those who would recognize their need for spiritual health and growth.
In our time of multiple afflictions, both without and within, our focus on relief and healing is not only expected, but promised in scripture: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (Mt. 11:28-30). Jesus calls us to himself, but when we come, we must bring ourselves. If you have not been observing Lent so far, fear not—it is not too late. Start today!
Fasting is a wonderful, easily accessible ancient church practice that focuses the soul outward even as the feeling of deprivation is felt inward. If you are confused about fasting, please call or contact me. There are also many online resources. What’s most important is taking the time and energy to be focused on God. Fasting is a way of doing that. Above all, be honest with yourself and God about the life you are living and the reasons you do—or do not do—what you do. God is already aware of that, but we each need the opportunity to cleanse our lives, accept God’s grace, and be strong for what is to come.
Faithfully in Christ,
Father Bill Burk†