by Jennifer Woodruff Tait, managing editor of Christian History magazine.
"O LORD, which for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights; Give us grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdued to the spirit, we may ever obey thy godly motions in righteousness, and true holiness, to thy honor and glory."—Collect (prayer) for the first Sunday in Lent by Thomas Cranmer for the 1549--Book of Common Prayer. Spelling modernized.
I’ve only fasted one time for longer than the occasional skipped meal, and that was during Holy Week 1995. I was in seminary then, where I had heard much about the virtue of fasting. As regular readers of Christian History know, I am a Wesleyan-Arminian and I grew up in the United Methodist Church and went to a Wesleyan-Arminian seminary. Fasting is on the list of John Wesley’s means of grace (here’s a modernized list of what the means of grace are if you’re curious) and I tried to practice the others regularly, but found this one a more difficult hill to climb. I thought that Maundy Thursday and Good Friday would be a good time to attempt this spiritual practice.
Prayer and fasting are spiritual disciplines.
As I recall now, I went about 60 hours, going from the morning of Maundy Thursday to a meal mid-day on Holy Saturday. One of my chief memories is of the Maundy Thursday chapel service at my school, where the choir performed sacred music related to the crucifixion. I realized that what I had heard was true: after the initial hunger pangs faded, the absence of food meant more attention to the presence of God in my life. When I had a small amount of fruit on Holy Saturday it was welcoming, but also somehow sad, as though that heightened awareness of God’s Spirit would be in some way crowded out of my life as it assumed its more normal contours.
I can’t imagine how Jesus must have felt when fasting for 40 days and 40 nights. Was he tempted to eat? Did he feel more free to pray? (Does being attentive to the movement of God’s Spirit in your life feel different when you are … you know … actually God incarnate?) What we do know is that Scripture tells us he did so, and that when he faced down the devil in the desert it was out of the spiritual grounding of that 40-day fast.
It is that fasting that, through a long series of historical developments, led to our modern observances of Lent, and it is that fasting that’s often recalled in our hymns and songs—and, in the Anglican tradition, in this prayer that Thomas Cranmer wrote for the first Sunday in Lent for the very first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. The reformers who created the BCP wanted to replace a prayer used in the medieval church which they felt placed too much emphasis on fasting as a good work:
O God, who purifiest thy Church by the yearly observance of the Lenten fast: Grant unto thy household, that it may follow out in good works those holy inspirations which it endeavours to obtain from thee by abstinence.
Cranmer’s version places the emphasis, not on how good fasting looks before God, but on the effect on us of doing it: learning to obey God and seek after holiness and righteousness. From my own experience, I would agree.
This Lent, whether or not you give something up or take something on, keep that in mind. The purpose of this season is not to feed our pride by what we give up, but to learn obedience to the One who saved us and who faced down death and the devil on our behalf.
Jennifer Woodruff Tait is managing editor of Christian History magazine.
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