Reflections on Ash Wednesday


It is the start of the Lenten season in the Church calendar. Growing up, I did not observe Lent. But over the last several years, Lent has come to mean something to me. I’d like to offer a few scattered reflections on fasting and self-renunciation, with the ultimate aim of offering personal answers to two questions:

(Q1.) Why do Christians fast?

(Q2.) Why do Christians have a corporate season of fasting (Lent)?

To be clear on terms, “fasting” can mean either “not eating anything” or “giving up some particular kind of food, or some other luxury”. I’m considering both sorts of fasting in this post, as both involve acts of self-renunciation.

And now to the questions. Firstly, what is the significance of fasting and self-renunciation in the Christian life? Why do Christians still hold on to this very ancient and (in this modern secular age) rather peculiar discipline? And it’s not just Christians who fast, of course;  many other religious traditions uphold the continued relevance of fasting for us today. So what good does it do?

Fasting and self-renunciation, we understand, might inculcate in us a sense of solemnity, piety, devotion. Fasting is a discipline. But discipline, in itself,  might not seem a worthy motivation to fast. It might even seem oddly “self-centred”, in the sense of being overly worried about one’s own personal piety or virtue.

That criticism, by the way, is a little unfair. In fact, the word “virtue” has unfairly acquired a bad rap today. Bizarrely, many people seem to think it’s merely sanctimonious to seek after virtue, to seek to be virtuous. This is obviously complete nonsense. Real virtue is that set of traits that make a person least sanctimonious, least petty, least self-centred, most generous and compassionate and kind to others. It is to be a gentleman or a lady, in the fullest sense of those ancient and magnificent titles. How could it be a bad thing to seek after virtue? It’s something we should all gladly be willing to own for ourselves. So it would be a great mistake to suppose that all self-discipline is merely sanctimonious. In fact, at its best, self-discipline is aimed at making us into good, healthy, fully human, selfless people. Even selflessness has to begin, as Michael Jackson would have it, with the man in the mirror. Cf. the famous “ship analogy” in book 3, ch.1 of C S Lewis’s Mere Christianity:

What  is the good of telling [a fleet of] ships how to steer so as to avoid collisions if, in fact, they are such crazy old tubs that they cannot be steered at  all? What is the good of drawing up, on paper, rules for social behaviour, if we know that, in fact, our greed, cowardice, ill temper, and self-conceit are going to prevent us from keeping them?

So perhaps virtue matters! But the point might still be raised that fasting is a very different virtue-forming act than, say, meeting the needs of the poor, caring for the sick, and other virtue-forming acts that more directly involve other people. How is fasting supposed to “work”? What good does it do? Is the private, individual act of fasting truly aimed at becoming good, healthy, and selfless in our relationships with others?

That is precisely what the Christian tradition affirms. The early Church fasted (ate nothing) every Wednesday and Friday, and gave the money they would have spent on food to the poor. The individual act had others in mind. Fasting is therefore intrinsically aimed at identifying with the hungry, pulling a person outside of his own skin. Consider the most extended discussion of fasting in the Bible, in Isaiah 58:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’

I should say, though, that with all this emphasis on the selfless goals of fasting, it shouldn’t be inferred that the act of fasting itself is superseded by other ways of getting at the same goal. Rather, fasting and service should go hand in hand. And practically, tangibly, the experience of being hungry contributes something. It presses itself upon the mind and the imagination in a way that merely intellectual discussions of poverty and hunger don’t. All distractions fade into the background. I’m hungry. To put it another way, fasting awakens a person to the fact that human “independence” and “autonomy” are entirely mythical. We realise our own intrinsic human neediness by fasting. Thus we learn humility.

We might press still deeper. The significance of fasting is especially direct and palpable in the mind of one who is fasting for the sake of God. For fasting then becomes a symbolic reminder of the human spiritual condition, and not just our physical condition. We can symbolically live out in our own bodies the spiritual realities we subscribe to with our minds:  that we need God, that we belong to God, that “our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee” (as St Augustine puts it). I find it particularly interesting during this Lenten season to note how, if we give up meat and other rich, fatty, filling foods, we are living out the spiritual reality that, without God, we can keep on eating and yet never be satisfied (as all the prophets have exhorted):

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live.  (Isa 55:2-3)

To summarise what has been said so far:  We dismissed the view that self-renunciation is merely obsessive navel-gazing, because the internal spiritual and moral health of the individual (“virtue”) is essential if the individual is to be in right relationship with others. We then considered more directly how fasting is aimed at pulling us outside of our own heads to consider others before ourselves.

Finally, in light of the above reflections, I’d like to return to (Q2) posed at the start of this post. Why is there a corporate season of fasting, namely, Lent? Why should I fast “because the Church said so”? We might be told that Lent is a season of remembrance, a season to prepare us for the grand remembrance of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. (Does Lent remember Jesus’s final journey, down that long, long road to Jerusalem?) But, come to think of it, why should our remembrance of the cross follow any schedule prescribed by the Church? Why have a Church calendar at all?

It seems to me that the Church calendar only feels like an imposition if we happen to believe that fasting and remembrance and other virtue-forming acts are individualistic, if they are “about me”. But fasting is not “about me” at all. It’s not even “about me and God”. Fasting is about others. It’s about a community. Fasting is intrinsically corporate. Therefore, it makes sense that the Church, our spiritual community, should collectively appoint times to fast and remember.

Moreover, as we’ve also discussed, fasting is a symbol through which we live out realities that are bigger than ourselves. This means that personal priorities ought to be straightened out in conformity to ultimate priorities. And ultimate priorities continue to be priorities whether I happen to feel them right now or not. So I think it is a beautiful thing for the individual to participate in (and indeed conform to) the greater act of the Church, the great collective witness it bears in this Lenten season to the remembrance of Christ. For that is what all Christian fasting involves:  a participation, a witnessing, to the greater and ongoing divine act in which we find ourselves.

Together we learn that there is a kind of renunciation that leads to wholeness.

If you have never observed Lent before, perhaps you might like to give it a try!