Fasting, or abstincence from food and frequently also from drinking) for an extended period of time, is certainly not new. It has actually been practiced for hundreds of years associated with spiritual ceremonies. Fasts are performed in all of the world’s major religions, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Confucianists, Hindus, Taoists, to name a few. Even though Buddhism emphasizes discipline in eating instead of fasting, Buddhists in certain countries around the world, notably Tibet, do fast from time to time.
Initially, fasting had been one of various rituals where activities were decreased or stopped, producing a condition of repose equivalent, symbolically, to death, or to the condition prior to birth. Fasting was also done as part of fertility rituals in ancient ceremonies.
A number of these ceremonies were carried out during the vernal and autumnal equinoxes and continued to be observed for centuries. Many historians link the emblematic utilization of matzo (unleavened bread) by Jews through the springtime celebration of Pesach (Passover), with these early beginnings. Remnants of those ancient rituals are also present in fasting done by Christians all through Lent prior to Easter.
In addition to fertility, fasting was often done to prevent catastrophe or as penitence for sin. Indigenous North American Indians did tribal fasts to find favor with the spirits and thus receive assistance in the prevention of looming threats and/or disasters. The Native Americans of Mexico as well as the Incas of Peru fasted regularly to “appease” the wrath of their respective gods.
In the ancient world, the Assyrians and also the Babylonians particularly, fasted as a form of penance. The jewish people also fast for purificaton and forgiveness of sins annually on “Yom Kippur” (The Day of Atonement). Yom Kippur has been observed four thousands of years since its inception by Moses as read in Leviticus 23:27.
The passage described that on that Holy Day, no work should be done. The text goes on to explain the unique rites that the priests did to absolve the people from their sins. One of these rituals removes the people’s sins and as a symbol puts them upon an animal that is consequently sent into the wilderness. This ceremony is the source of the phrase “scapegoat”. Muslims observe similar times of fasting each year during the month of Ramadan.
The historical Christian church also connected fasting with penitence and cleansing from sin (see Matthew 6:16; Mark 9:29). For the first 200 years after its inception, Christianity recognized fasting as something done in preparation for receiving Holy Communion and baptism, as well as for the ordination of new priests into the Catholic church.
While at first this type of fasting was done on one’s own volition, later on they became compulsory. In the sixth century lent fasting was broadened from the initial 40 hours, ( the amount of time that Christ spent in the grave prior to his resurrection), to 40 days of fasting from sunup to dusk – with only one meal allowed daily.
Following the Reformation (1517-1648), fasting was maintained by the majority of Protestant churches and became optional in certain instances. More stringent Protestants such as the Puritans, on the other hand, condemned not just the celebrations of the church, but also its fasting rituals.
Fasting was belittled from very early times. A lot of Old Testament prophets and Christian authors viewed fasting as being a meaningless custom carried out by individuals who were living in sin. In our contemporary world fasting is often sharply criticized, particularly by some in the medical profession.
Doctors and psychologists have questioned the worthiness of fasting for long periods of time as they maintain that it is sometimes harmful. Roman Catholic fasting days are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. In the US, fasts are done primarily by Episcopalians and Lutherans among Protestants, by Orthodox and Conservative Jews, and by Roman Catholics.
The hunger strike, a type of fasting, continues to be used as a political tool. Countless political prisoners in several parts of the globe have engaged in hunger strikes to catch the government’s ear and bring attention to their cause. Mohandas Gandhi, leader of the battle for India’s independence, carried out fasts regularly to motivate his followers to resist violence and adhere to his cherished precept of nonviolence.
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