In the context of the presentation of the Child Jesus in the temple of Jerusalem, there appear a prophetess of great age, named Anna. St Luke thus describes her: “She did not depart from the temple, worshipping with fasting and prayer night and day” (Lk 2,37). She represents the whole of Israel who waited upon the Messiah. The whole religious life of the people of Israel was oriented towards the expectation of the Messiah. Fasting always formed an integral part of this religious life of Israel. It was this Anna who had the fortune to see the Infant Jesus, the Salvation prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles and for to the glory to the people of Israel (Lk 2, 30-31). Fasting is a pre-requisite to see and experience God.
Fasting in the Old Testament
Fasting consists in abstaining from food and drinks. The first sin committed in the garden of Eden had to with eating. That may be the reason why during the fasting period, people abstain mainly from food. The Jews used to fast accompanied by prayer on all important occasions in life. And fasting was described as “standing before the Lord” (Jud 20,26; Esther 4,16 ).
Two fasting scenes in the Old Testament deserve special attention. First scene is in the life of Moses. The context is the Sinaitic covenant. As a preparation for receiving from the Lord the Ten Commandments, the conditions of the Covenant, Moses fasted for forty days. We read: “And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he either ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments” (Ex 34,28). It is said of the days of fasting that ‘he was with the Lord’. He did not take food or drink, for he had another food and drink – the Word of God which he wrote upon the tables. “Man does not live by bread alone, but by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord” (Deut 8,3; Mt 4,3). Time of fasting must be time of intense meditation of the Word of God. Lord’s Word should become our food and drink.
When Moses came down from the mountain, he saw that the people were sinning against the true God by worshipping the molten calf. He cast the two tables and broke them before their eyes. As a penance for the sin of the people, Moses fasted for another forty nights and days, prostrating before the Lord (Deut 9,18). God paid heed to his prayer with fasting; and the punishment was averted. By fasting we can escape from the divine punishment for our sins. The life and mission of Jonah attests to this fact. And the leaders of the people have a greater responsibility to pray for the people who go after many modern idols.
The second scene is in the life of Elijah. When he learnt that his life was in danger, he fled to Bersheba and there he sat under a broom tree (1 Kgs 19). There he was miraculously fed by the angel of the Lord with cake baked on hot stones. Then for forty nights and days he did not take any food or drink and he reached Horeb, the mount of God (1 Kgs 19,8). The bread baked on the hot stones is a symbol of the Holy Eucharist. As the prophet was strengthened by the divine bread, so too the who fasts should be nourished by the Eucharistic Bread.
Elijah fasted as a preparation for the encounter with the Lord on Horeb. It is fasting that enables us experience God in prayer. We should not forget the nature of Elijah’s God experience. It was not in the loud voice of earthquake or wind or fire but in the small voice that God came to him (1 Kgs 19,11-12). It is in the moments of interior silence and prayer that we can experience God’s presence.
Before appearing in public, after baptism in the river Jordan, Jesus fasted for forty days (Mt 4,1-11). In the solitude of the wilderness, paying heed to the soft voice of the Father, he was preparing himself for the public life. It was the occasion when he intimately experienced the divine Sonship that was publicly proclaimed at baptism. It was the time when it was proved that “Man does not live by bread alone, but by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord”. It is to be observed that Jesus overcame the temptations with the Word of God. We can also defeat the temptations of the powers of evil.
Moses obtained from God the Ten Commandments through prayer and fasting; Jesus – the New Moses, brought to light the inner meaning of these commandments after forty days of fast. It was in this context of new interpretation that he put forward the conditions for entering the Kingdom of God (Mt 5,20). As part of the new righteousness demanded of the followers of the Messiah, Jesus gave a new teaching on fasting as well: “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt 6,16-18).
New Wine in New Wineskins
The people of God in the Old Testament fasted in view of the Messiah. Since with the coming the Messiah, that hope is realized, there was no meaning in continuing fasting with that purpose. That is why Jesus asked, Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? (Mk 2,19). And Jesus continued: “The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day” (Mk 2,20). He was referring to period after the death and resurrection of the Messiah. In fact, he was announcing in advance the nature of fasting of his disciples in his physical absence. This is new wine in new wineskins. When we fast for forty days in immediate preparation for the Paschal Mystery we are fulfilling this prophecy of our Lord.