The history of the Bible turns on fasts broken and kept. As Alexander Schmemann put it, God formed Adam hungry and gave him the world as his banquet. Every tree of the garden, including the tree of life, was on his menu, with only one restriction: Adam was not to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Adam’s fast wasn’t total, and it wasn’t permanent. Eventually, Adam would have been allowed to eat from the tree of knowledge and to enter more fully into his royal vocation. For the time being, he was to keep the fast.
When Adam broke the fast, he was cast out of Eden, and a longer and more stringent fast was imposed on humanity. No one was permitted back into Eden to eat from the tree of life, much less the tree of knowledge. From Adam forward, human history was and remains overshadowed by this fast.
As Last Adam and Son of God, heir of all things who had shared glory with his Father from eternity, Jesus had a right to eat the fruit of life. Yet he humbled himself to accept the terms of the fast imposed at Eden. When he assumed our flesh, he assumed our unsatisfied hunger. Satan tempted him to seize the kingdoms of the world, to tempt God, to break his forty-day fast, but Jesus refused. Adam broke the fast and was expelled from Eden. Jesus kept the fast and was restored, and his return to Eden is also ours. Jesus kept the fast so that we might enjoy his Father’s eternal feast.
Jesus kept the fast, and he expects his disciples to fast, to maintain a regular practice of refraining from food and drink. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus doesn’t command his disciples to fast; he simply assumes we will: “When you fast.”
Jesus doesn’t expect us to fast because food is evil. He made everything, and everything created is good if we receive it with thanksgiving. Jesus doesn’t expect us to fast because we need to be released from our sluggish bodies to live purely spiritual lives, transcending need. God gave us bodies and souls and needs. Fasting doesn’t put God in our debt, and it doesn’t prove our spiritual worth. Jesus doesn’t expect us to fast because he wants us to be gloomy and sad.
Fasting is a physical expression of patience. It is restraint, but not permanent restraint. We refrain from eating and drinking for now, in view of a feast to come. When we fast, we give up eating and drinking until a task is complete. Fasting, we are Nazirites who gave up drinking wine and eating raisins to carry on a holy war (Num. 6). Fasting nurtures hope.
God imposed a manna fast on Israel in the wilderness to teach them that “man does not live by bread alone” (Deut. 8). Even when we eat and drink, the food and drink don’t keep us alive. Only the living God gives life. When we pray, we ask God for what we cannot provide for ourselves, knowing that he can supply everything we need. And we underscore our prayerful neediness in fasting. Fasting is an embodied confession of our dependence on God, a confession that God is God and we are not.
Fasting is a humiliation, a dietary prostration, a voluntary death. Eating and drinking accompany joy; we refrain from eating and drinking to mourn our sins and their disastrous consequences. Prostrate, we trust God to raise us; mourning, we wait for God’s mercy; dead, we look to the God of resurrection. Fasting strengthens faith.
Isaiah tells the Israelites that they are to fast for the sake of generosity. This is the Lord’s fast: Share bread with the hungry. Shelter the homeless. When a naked man approaches, don’t hide from him; give him clothes. Satisfy the desires of the afflicted, and give him the liberty he longs for. Be a spring of water in this parched world.
This is the Lord’s fast because it’s the fast he keeps. He loosed Israel’s chains in Egypt, let oppressed Hebrews go free, and broke the yoke of Pharaoh. He shared his bread with Israel in the wilderness and gave them water from the rock. He clothed them with glory and poured out his soul to refresh his people. Fasting deepens love.
We are what we desire, but our disordered appetites and desires move us toward impatience, self-confidence, greed, and selfishness. Fasting conforms our desires to the theological virtues. As we suffer hunger in faith, hope, and love, the Spirit shapes our hungers into hunger for God.
Peter J. Leithart is president of Trinity House. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here.
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