We are asked to pray and fast for Syria. Why fasting? How does fasting help the people in Syria?
Fasting is found in many ancient and modern religions: for purification or supplication or mourning or asceticism.
In the Old Testament, fasting frequently accompanied wailing in sackcloth and ashes at mourning ceremonies. It was also a sign of repentance as when David fasted to atone for his sin. Moses fasted in preparation for divine revelation. Sometimes, public fasts were called in times of national crisis.
In the New Testament, there are also frequent references to fasting. Jesus fasted 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness to prepare for his mission on earth. That mission was to live, suffer and die for others.
When told by the devil to change the stones into bread to feed his hunger, really to satisfy himself, Jesus responds, "One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4.4).
When the disciples were unable to expel a demon, Jesus admonishes them: "This kind can be driven out only by prayer and fasting" (Mark 9.29). Although neither all ancient manuscripts nor present-day translations of the Bible refer to "fasting" here, some ancient manuscripts do.
Therefore, it seems both prayer and fasting, which are often used in the same breath, are efficacious in helping others.
When asked why his disciples didn't fast frequently like John's disciples, Jesus said fasting was not appropriate when he, the bridegroom was still with them. They would fast after he left them.
Jesus knew they would need fasting and prayer to help them to remain faithful and courageous in the face of persecution.
Paul was struck blind on his way from Jerusalem and was taken to Damascus where he fasted for three days and nights (Acts 9.9). He makes frequent mention of his hunger and deprivation during his ministry.
We know how our mortification and sacrifice, including fasting, benefit the individual. They promote self-discipline and strengthen character to enable us to do good and avoid sin. They support prayer and help us grow in our relationship to God.
But how can my fasting help others? Since humans are both body and soul, the soul needs bodily acts to express itself.
Fasting is humbling one's soul before God and recognizing that without God, we can do nothing. This enables us to enter into the divine presence to receive God's gifts. Fasting clears the mind and heart from the clutter of everyday life.
Therefore, it brings one to listen to a deeper wisdom and a willingness to rely on God alone.
When food is considered as a gift from God, fasting is a religious act. When we fast and feel hungry, we enter into solidarity with those who are truly hungry. This leads to a greater concern for others through almsgiving and other means of assistance. It leads to a greater disposition to prayer.
For Christians, fasting, prayer and almsgiving are the three essential means to express our love for God and others.
Paul frequently reminds us of our incorporation into Christ with phrases like "to put on Christ" and "in, with and for Christ" so that "the life of Jesus may be made manifest in our bodies" (2 Corinthians 4.8-12) and we might partake of the divine nature.
To be Christ-like, we must take up our cross, accept our suffering and offer it to God.
Because Christians are "a royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2.9), we can speak of offering sacrifices. We join in the priest's offering of the sacrifice of Calvary at Mass.
But, we also offer the sacrifice of ourselves, our praise and gratitude, our joys and our sufferings, our worship and our works, our bodies and our hearts.
As members of the Mystical Body of Christ, we offer ourselves with Christ for all humanity during the Mass. In the Morning Offering, we offer to God all our joys and sufferings, our work and our prayer. At the moment when a pain or difficulty occurs, we can offer it to God.
Often these offerings are made for the physical healing or the salvation of a loved one or, in this case, for the suffering in Syria. We know God will listen to our sacrificial prayers.
It is interesting to note that Pope Francis asked other Christians and other religions to join in fasting and praying for peace on Sept. 7 and dozens of spiritual leaders around the world led their people in public prayer.
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