Fasting can be a real gesture of solidarity
Last weekend Catholics around the world observed a day of prayer and fasting for peace in the Middle East, and especially in Syria. It was Pope Francis who called for this expression of solidarity and fellowship when he gave his Angelus audience on the previous Sunday.
He announced his plans for the day of prayer, to be held on "the vigil of the birth of Mary, Queen of Peace", and he called all Catholics to join in the prayer and fasting.
Some heeded his call, more didn't. But a lot of people simply wondered what us prayer and fasting would be for the people of Syria – isn't prayer and fasting just a throw-back to the old days where the Catholic Church thought they had the answer for everything? Isn't it completely useless?
Well to answer that, first we need to realise that fasting and prayer is most certainly not exclusively a Catholic thing. All religions and people of faith believe in the effects of prayer, it's not something new or ground breaking, its been around for as long as humanity has.
And fasting isn't anything that new either. Religions such as Baha'i, Buddhist, Eastern Orthodox, Hindu, Jewish, Mormon, and Muslim, all have fasting as a core value of their religion. The reasons why they fast vary, but generally speaking the aim is openness to God and accompaniment to petitions.
The Bible is littered with references to prayer and fasting, not just in the New Testament, but very much also in the Old Testament where prayer and fasting have been tools used by believers for millennia.
Looking at the New Testament, the more critical the situation, the more appropriate the fasting and prayer. In both Matthew and Mark's Gospels, the story is recounted where Jesus casts a demon from a young boy whom the disciples, although they had previously been given authority over unclean spirits, had been unable to cast out. Later, these disciples asked Jesus why they failed in their attempts to free the boy from the demon, and Jesus said, 'This kind can come out only by prayer and fasting'.
In this particular case, the demon was exceptionally malicious and obstinate Jesus seems to be saying that a determined foe must be met with an equally determined faith. For Christians then, prayer is a ready weapon in the spiritual battle, and fasting helps to focus prayer and give it resolve.
Going back to what the Pope said last week: "Humanity needs to see these gestures of peace and to hear words of hope and peace". If nothing else, the prayer and fasting would be a gesture, where we might feel helpless and useless, well at least we can make a gesture of solidarity. And I think that would in itself, be reason enough for people to make a special effort for just one day.
Most of us eat too much. According to information released by Health Authorities around the world, today's sophisticated society is suffering through too much eating, drinking and smoking. We also have a glut of creature comforts and instant on-demand everything that makes us sometimes slow to appreciate all that we have.
Balance that against the starvation and suffering of those who are caught up in the turmoil in the Middle East. Their plight should be something that we not only hear or read about, it should be something that enters our consciousness and that we think about. Even perhaps it is something that we should be concerned about. Maybe we might even be spurred somehow to try to do something about it.
Prayer and fasting allows us to think of others instead of just ourselves; it asks us to turn outwards rather than always inwards; it challenges us to seek out ways where we can help, rather than always looking out for number one. Fasting and praying couldn't possible be a bad thing could it?