After a brief mountain trip for the festival of the Transfiguration of Our Lord on the 3rd, the month of March puts us in the “fast” lane with the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, the 6th. Fasting--that is, observing food restrictions at certain times--is a component of many world religions, including all of the “Big 5” religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism). Each religion has its own particular attitudes and practices toward fasting, and Christianity reflects the great diversity of opinions on fasting even within the same religion since each group of Christians takes a different approach. Many of you may be familiar with the Roman Catholic practice, for example, of refraining from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. Eastern Orthodox Christians observe longer and more frequent fasting periods than that, while many Protestant denominations pay little or no attention to fasting.
As for us Lutherans, well...the situation is a bit more complicated. Martin Luther was steeped in the Roman Catholic tradition, so he was very well acquainted with the practice and its surrounding theology--namely, that depriving oneself of things you enjoy can draw you into closer relationship with God. He understood the intent behind the practice and had no problem with it, but he objected to the self-righteous use of fasting, which is the notion that fasting is a good work of faith that people can do to get into a more favorable state with God. The verdict, then, is that fasting is a proper part of life for Lutheran Christians, but we have to take a guarded approach to it so that we do not make it an end in itself.
We take that approach when we realize that fasting, while an unusual thing, is simply one of several physical faith practices that help to engage our bodies in religion, which could otherwise be pigeonholed as an activity solely for the mind. This puts fasting right alongside other things we do regularly, like sitting and standing during worship, making the sign of the cross, or processing down the center aisle during festival services. These sorts of faith practices remind us that our whole selves--even our bodies--belong to God and have been created for the purpose of glorifying God.
With that in mind, then, I invite you this year to the Lenten fast with new and broader definition of fasting, one that is not limited to just food. This year, let us think of fasting as stepping outside of our automatic behavior into purposeful spiritual adventures. Things change when we stop living any aspect of life on autopilot and devote the necessary attention to alter a particular behavior in order to more fully glorify God in what we do. Perhaps that altered behavior is a healthier eating pattern, to care for the body God has given you. Maybe it is spending more time interacting with people than with your phone, to better appreciate God’s wonderful gift of human community. Or, you might just take a classic approach and give up time spent doing literally anything else and divert it toward prayer or reading the Bible.
Whatever your Lenten fast looks like this year, I pray that your purposeful spiritual adventure is meaningful and eye-opening. Fasting is not simply prescribed food restrictions--it is a step outside the usual and into a space where only God knows what will happen!
Pastor Micah Garnett has been our Pastor since July 2016. He grew up in York, PA and graduated from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg in 2011. He enjoys worship, working with social services in Fulton County, writing hymns, and cycling.