Within our Christian tradition, there are seven ancient practices, or disciplines, that come to us out of Judaism and directly through the teachings and observances of the early church. Each of the seven functions as a way of incorporating our faith into our daily, human, and very physical lives. Each is, in other words, a means by which we as believers can incarnate belief and perceive it in our bodies and physical consciousness, as well as in our minds.
We, as God’s creatures on earth, live out our earthly lives within four dimensions – those of height, depth, breadth, and time. Of the seven ancient practices, four govern or measure time. Fixed-hour prayer incorporates daily times into the faithful life of the believer. Sabbath keeping or observance regulates and consecrates weekly time. The business of following the seasons of the liturgical year, both in our public worship and our private devotion, synchronizes the rhythms of the year for every member in the larger church universal. The making of pilgrimage, the fourth of the practices that sanctify time.
The other three ancient practices have more to do with the business of living within a space. They are concerned with the physical body and its awareness of itself. Of these three fasting is far the most misunderstood, maligned, and misused. Tithing costs one a part of the product of one’s work as a part of the substance that one has for supporting the physical and emotional needs of the body. The sacred meal, by any name, be it Eucharist or mass or Lord’s Supper or Communion, brings the divine directly into the body. But fasting … ah fasting. Now there’s a different matter. Fasting hurts. Fasting can become exaggerated into an excessive and neurotic indulgence. Fasting, carried too far can harm the body … and fasting submitted to theological and scriptural scrutiny, asserts that soul and body are, and that neither is without the other. For many Christians, that in itself is a disturbing precept better left unexplored … in a time when we can accept fasting not just as an antique exercise once practised by our forebears, but as one our Lord himself both followed and taught as necessary at certain times.
By Phyllis Tickle, taken from Fasting, by Scot McKnight, 2009