When I was in college, one of my Catholic hall mates came to me and said that we were all going to do a fast together, and she assumed I would want to be a part of it. I shrugged and said sure, and as we talked about it, I realized that what we would actually be doing is fasting for the Muslim holy days of Ramadan. My friend Imraan is Muslim, and some of the girls (all of them Catholic, as I recall) thought that we should support his month of fasting by doing it with him (Ramadan is the month when Mohammed received the Quran, so there is a month long festival). I don’t recall that I had ever purposely fasted before, which isn’t a big surprise since it wasn’t something that was spoken about openly in evangelical Christianity, at least at that time. Far from being a communal value, so far as I knew, fasting wasn’t something that was practiced at all in my faith community. My Catholic friend thought this was hilarious, and they kept assuring me that fasting with others was an ordinary, even laudable, thing. “It’s like Lent for Muslims,” one of my hallmates said.
During Ramadan, those participating in the fast don’t eat (or drink… or, technically, put anything in their mouth) during daylight hours. At night, families and others from the community come together after the call to prayer and eat a feast. So the month of fasting is also a month of feasting. Every day we would fast during the daylight hours (which for me meant skipping lunch… I didn’t eat breakfast in college), and then come together at a certain point in the early evening in the cafeteria and eat together and talk about our days. I don’t remember doing the whole month… maybe the others did. But I did a few days at least, and it was really fun and deeply bonding to spend time with my friends, coming together at the end of the day and talking about our days, the experience of fasting, and enjoying our cafeteria food together.
It’s something we’re missing in my branch of Christianity. In Islam, Judaism and Catholocism there are specific times set aside for communal fasting, and early Christianity appears to have followed the Jewish pattern of fasting, with festival fasts and many people fasting for 24 hour periods about twice a week. But as prostestant Christianity broke from Catholicism, and then continued to fraction into denominations, many of our denominations jettisoned a lot of those types of practices, and Lent dropped out pretty quickly, followed eventually (I guess) by communal fasting. I think we’ve lost something significant there. Communal fasting creates a feeling of being in something together. It delineates a line around the community and shows who is in and who is out. It emphasizes our commonalities and creates a tradition and common experience, and re-focuses us on what matters most… our common commitment to following God, emphasizing that our commitment to God and to our community is more important than even our most basic needs, like food.
Interestingly enough, the culture of Campus Crusade for Christ is really “fast friendly.” Our founder, Bill Bright, did a forty day fast about once a year, and many others in the organization followed his example, so it’s really one of the only places where I haven’t felt like a stranger, an outsider or an extreme crazy person when talking about my fast. In fact, in CCC, instead of questions like, “are you crazy?” or “Why on earth would you do that?” people have asked how I’m doing or brought up their own experiences while fasting. Which made me feel – more so than at my church or other places in the Christian community – that someone understood what I was doing. It made me feel like an insider rather than a freak.