Fasting in Lent

The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England has a table of days of fasting or abstinence, according to which something like a hundred days a years are to be observed in this way. Can there be a single Anglican in the world now who follows this table? The practice of fasting runs so contrary to contemporary thinking that it can be hard to make sense of something that was universal in past centuries. The approach of Lent may be a good time to sort out some thoughts about it.

Fasting is not undertaken to improve ourselves by giving up certain impure things for a period; otherwise we would not take them up again after a period. Nor do we do it to obtain forgiveness or merit, as it we could coerce God into loving us. Losing weight is not a motive, although it can be a result. Nor is fasting undertaken to allow us to experience what life must be like for the needy, or to put aside the money saved by living more simply to aid them, although these could be beneficial results.

Rather, according to the Fathers fasting is a means of strengthening ourselves so that we become more able to resist bad impulses. By saying no to a glass of wine during Lent I become more able to say no to whatever temptation, specially be crafted to be appealing, is thrown at me; ‘By refusing things which are permitted we become able to refuse things which are forbidden.’ (Ambrose of Milan)

That, at least, seems to be the theory, however far we may be from seeing the results in our lives.