Feasting and fasting

The truth is, I’m not very good at fasting.  The suprising thing is that I was, in fact, better when I was younger.  As I became more committed to my faith I used to fast before Mass on Sunday and when I was at college being formed for priesthood the whole routine of the day was geared around being able to fast before the Eucharist because breakfast wasn’t served until after it. But ordination was my downfall.  The excuse was, ‘Well, I need to be able to minister and so collapsing halfway through a service out of hunger would be no good.’ And there you have it, my days of fasting passed away.  I’m not very good at Lent and the permissions we now get and which I have in my turn given, that it is so good to take something on rather than give something up, have done nothing to counter this undisciplined tendency that I have.


The Feast

I went to another Iftar last week, on the penultimate day of Ramadan.  This one was being hosted by the Metropolitan Police at their new headquarters in New Scotland Yard. It was great to be there. But it was a cheat on my part – I had had breakfast, lunch and numerous drinks all day.  So, whilst I certainly felt peckish when the sun set at around 9.20 and the fast for that day ended, I was nowhere near as hungry or thirsty as the Muslims alongside me. I was sharing in the Iftar but not sharing in the fast!

There has been some criticism levelled at me after the commemoration of the London Bridge attack because we – and I suppose as Dean that means I – hosted a Grand Iftar in the Cathedral itself on the evening of that day of commemoration.  Around 300 people packed the nave for the presentations that were made and the songs that were sung before the fast broke and people formed a long queue for the food.  I’ve been accused of being a ‘Muslim-lover’ which doesn’t feel much like an insult, and destroying the Christian tradition by holding an inter-faith service in the Cathedral.  As some bloggers have helpfully pointed out an Iftar isn’t a service and our Iftar, like the one the Met Police hosted, was nothing of the kind. But if I am being accused of the sin of hospitality then I am guilty as charged.

One of the things that has changed in the whole Christian-Muslim-community world of the past few years is the development of the Iftar as being something that people share in together. It is as though this meal has been brought out of the mosque and out of individual homes onto the streets – as around Grenfell Tower last week – or into other places, offices and churches. And it has helped me understand a bit more of what Ramadan and Eid are all about.

I used to think that Lent and Ramadan were equivalents, but I have learnt that they are not.  I may still be wrong but it seems to me that discipline and charitable giving are where any equivalence ends. Lent is a season of penitence and the discipline we choose for those forty odd days is meant to help us focus on that aspect of the Christian life as well as prepare us spitually for Holy Week and Easter. But the discipline is ongoing, it doesn’t begin and end each day, between dawn and dusk.  We are not waiting for sunset to have a bar of chocolate, or a glass of wine, or whatever it is that we are depriving ourselves of. Ramadan is much more about focusing the body and the mind on God, its much more about the deepening of spirituality than it is about penitence and the submission of the body as opposed to the soul. With Ramadan each days fast ends with a feast, the two are intertwined in the daily pattern that is established and which people so powerfully commit to.

Part of the whole inter-faith scene, it seems to me, is about giving us the opportunity to learn something from each other.  These past few years have certainly taught me about fasting and challenged my lack of engagement with it. Being with Hindus last year taught me about living up close to God in every aspect of my life. From Buddhism in these last few years I have learnt about focusing my thinking, what we are calling ‘mindfulness’ and finding in that peace. And from my regular visits to the Holy Land my experience of Judaism has taught me to value community at the deepest level.

But we have a much deeper and richer tradition of fasting in the Church of England than we give ourselves credit for. Thumbing through the Book of Common Prayer brings you face-to-face with some wonderful stuff including this

i) The forty days of Lent.
ii) The Ember Days at the Four Seasons, being the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after:
1. The First Sunday in Lent
2. The Feast of Pentecost
3. September 14
4. December 13.
iii) The three Rogation Days, being the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday
before Holy Thursday, or the Ascension of our Lord.
iv) All the Fridays in the Year, except Christmas Day.

So there are probably 67 Fast Days in the year in addition to the 40 days of Lent – and I keep none of them. Time for me to really think again and to be challenged by my Muslim friends who are now feasting all day as they celebrate Eid. But if I do fast then I must also remember those wise words of Jesus

‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’ (Matthew 6.16-18)

So I thank God for the challenge of Ramadan and pray that I may have the humility to learn from others as they share with me something of their relationship with God.

for the diversity of faith and practice
within and beyond the church,
I give you thanks and praise.

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