Rev. William Cwirla
Advent is a fasting season. Fasting is a “fine outward discipline,” according to the Small Catechism. While it does not commend us before God nor is it to be seen by others (Mt 6:16), fasting is a valuable spiritual and physical discipline to train our appetites and bring them into conformity with our will.
Sadly, the excessive eating and drinking of the “holiday season” leaves us spiritually and physically debilitated. Many people make “resolutions” to diet and exercise in the new year in order to undo the damage of the holidays. Far better to exercise discipline and restraint in the days leading up to the feast of Christmas, so that we may enjoy the full twelve day feast with guilt-free joy. Fasting is really a part of ordered, disciplined feasting.
From the early centuries, Christians fasted each week on Wednesdays and Fridays. Wednesday was the day our Lord was betrayed by Judas, Friday the day He was crucified for our salvation. Fasting disciplines vary. Some eat nothing or simply a bit of bread and water. Others refrain from eating rich foods such as meats, cheese, or deserts. The time normally reserved for food preparation and eating is used for prayer and devotion. The money saved is given to the poor or to charities.
If you have never tried the discipline of fasting before, Advent would be a good time to start. Here is a simple program. On Wednesdays and Fridays in Advent, refrain from eating meat, cheeses, and desserts. If you are experienced at fasting, you may wish to extend this fast for the entire season, excepting Sundays. Sundays are always joyful little Easters.
If you have specific dietary requirements for health reasons, by all means, stay with them. Don’t starve yourself, but allow yourself to be hungry. As Luther once quipped, we must teach the belly god that he doesn’t need to be fed every time he growls. If you enjoy wine or other drink, limit yourself to a single glass of wine, or, if you wish, abstain from alcohol entirely (except of course, the Lord’s Supper!) during Advent. If you are unaccustomed to fasting, you may simply elect to eat a small lunch on Wednesdays and Fridays in Advent, and spend the lunch hour reading Scripture and devotions. You would be surprised how far an apple and a handful of almonds will take you.
Whatever you decide to do, do it prayerfully and intentionally. That is one reason why seasons and days of fasting are so helpful. They discipline you to fast even if you “don’t feel like it.” Don’t make a public display of your fasting. As Jesus teaches, wash your face, comb your hair, put a smile on your face, and keep your fast between you and God. Use the extra time for prayer, Bible reading, and devotion. Make an Advent “alms box” and collect the money you didn’t spend on food to give to someone in need or put it into the kettle of those bell ringing folks you see at this time of year. When you break your fast, don’t gorge yourself or make up for what you missed, but prayerfully enjoy each bite as a precious gift from God who gives seed to the sower and daily bread for our tables.
Should you lapse in your Advent discipline and unwittingly grab that slice of Christmas fruit cake (does anyone actually eat those things?), don’t beat yourself up over it, and by no means, do not lapse into religious guilt. This is a man-made discipline, not a commandment from God. But do take a reflective moment to recognize how our appetites control us, and how out of control our eating and drinking can be. “For freedom Christ has set you free,” therefore, let nothing, including your eating and drinking, enslave you.
You will likely find several benefits to your Advent fast. You will discover the joy of being in control of your eating and drinking. Or you may discover, much to your chagrin, how much of a slave to your appetites you actually are. Either way, this is a great benefit and blessing. You will rediscover the joy of food and drink and may even find freedom from the “religion” of dieting. You may lose a pound or two before Christmas, though the purpose of fasting is not to lose weight. You will realize the superiority of intentional devotional discipline over those silly new year’s resolutions, which are usually too little and too late. You will find your prayers and devotions increased and sharpened. You will have a little more to give to those whose stomachs are empty every day of the year.
And you may very well find yourself more relaxed and focused than ever before.
Rev. William Cwirla is pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Chuch in Hacienda Heights, CA. He is also president of Higher Things. This is the second article of a series on the season of Advent.