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Fasting: What’s It All About?

Ash Wednesday is on 26 February 2020

by James Lamont

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To explore the concept of fasting.

Preparation and materials

  • None required.


  1. The Christian period of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. Lent lasts for 40 days, excluding Sundays, and is a period of reflection and fasting that Christians use to represent the time that Jesus spent in the desert, during which he was tempted by, and resisted, the devil.

    To show support and solidarity with this ideal, Christians attempt to give up certain things. They also use the time to focus their minds upon Easter and the importance of this time for Christians.

  2. There is no set date for Ash Wednesday because the date for Easter Sunday, which is the day after Lent ends, changes every year. On the night before Lent begins, tradition has it that those who are about to fast should use up luxury foods such as eggs, butter and sugar by making pancakes. This custom survives to this day, albeit in a more secular form.

  3. We are going to consider the question, ‘If fasting is only of ceremonial value, why do it?

    The immediate effects of fasting are noticeable: we save money and eat more healthily. In fact, our society encourages this: detox diets have become increasingly popular and the importance of healthy eating is emphasized. Many people embark on fasts for straightforward reasons such as to lose weight. However, they often experience another effect: an improvement in their mental well-being.

  4. Christians who fast during Lent often have a similar experience. They can gain joy from exercising self-control and rejecting short-term physical pleasures that might have poor long-term consequences.

    For Christians, Lenten fasting is a detox for the soul. It is a rejection of temptation in favour of what really matters to a Christian: fellowship with others and closeness to God.

  5. Of course, giving up food is only one part of a successful fast; we should also act as we would expect a good person to act. The Prophet Muhammad expressed his thoughts on fasting by stating, ‘If you do not give up telling lies, God will have no need of your giving up food and drink. There are many who fast all day and pray all night, but they gain nothing but hunger and sleeplessness.’

  6. Fasting must be done in moderation: nothing is gained from hunger alone. Muslims fast completely during daylight hours for the month of Ramadan. Meals are eaten before sunrise and after sunset. This shows that, although the fasting period is necessary, it works best when it is accompanied by some respite, to enable those who are fasting to truly appreciate what they have given up.

  7. And what about us? Do we ever fast? Fasting does have its benefits, even if we happen to have little or no faith.

    So, how about fasting this Lent? How about giving up, say, chocolate? Or is that too hard? How about choosing something that you can give up successfully? Perhaps you could give up crisps, and donate the money that you would have spent on them to charity?

  8. Alternatively, we could take up something positive so that we are giving a little of our time. For example, we could decide to:

    - be more cheerful in the morning at home
    - clear up our room without being asked
    - do the washing-up or stack the dishwasher

    There are many things that we could do . . . now there’s a challenge for us all!

Time for reflection

Read the following poem, pausing to allow time for thought after each verse.

How I love it.
Give some up for 40 days?
You’ve got to be joking.

Pause to allow time for thought.

Got so much of it,
Yet I never know where it went.
Give up some time for someone else?

Pause to allow time for thought.

Give up some food to help others?
That’s hard.
Do something at home?
That’s hard.
Make the world a better place?
Now there’s a challenge.

Pause to allow time for thought.

Dear God,
Make my good deeds and actions like a ripple on a pond.
May they spread out to cover more and more people
So that slowly and surely,
The world becomes a better place.

Publication date: February 2020   (Vol.22 No.2)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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