Wednesday, April 21, 2010

8th annual Fast Day tomorrow

Fast Day was once a national holiday. The "opposite of Thanksgiving," instead of a feast and celebration, it featured a fast and contrition. It was even at the opposite end of the calendar, in April rather than November.

Centuries later, we are reviving and reimagining the holiday for contemporary life. This Thursday, April 22, will be the eighth annual "new" Fast Day.

As early as 1670, leaders proclaimed days of humility, fasting and prayer -- citizens were to express remorse for their sins and to ask God's blessing on the crops they were planting. Our 21st century version focuses less on remorse and more on introspection.

By refraining from eating for a day, we awaken from the blur of our daily routine, and observe our lives from a different vantage point. The time that we would normally use for eating, and the regular reminders of our hunger pangs, provide an opportunity to reflect on the values we are living in the world. These insights may be shared and strengthened at a potluck break-fast that evening.

Most of the colonies -- and then the states -- proclaimed fast days well into the 18th century. The federal government followed suit, and many presidents declared national fasting holidays.

The last federal Fast Day was held after President Lincoln was assassinated, in 1865. His proclamation of two years earlier read in part, "We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God ...we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace ... It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness."

Historian Dean Grodzins, then at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, proposed a revived Fast Day in 2003. Since then, some of his students have observed Fast Days with the congregations they serve. We note that our fasting is by choice, while tens of millions go to bed hungry every night. This recognition helps us to see our lives in a larger context, with an emphasis on compassion and justice.

Fasting is part of many faith traditions, as a ritual of purification or discipline. Our Fast Day is a little more flexible. Since the object is the interruption of routine, we embrace many types of fasting, from a full 24 hours to a simple daylight fast, from absolutely nothing ingested through a water or juice fast, to refraining from eating a favorite food (this is especially good for people whose circumstances require that they eat at regular intervals). On Thursday, participants will fast as they feel appropriate, then gather for the service and potluck at the UU church at 6:00pm.

To paraphrase part of Lincoln's 1863 proclamation, "it is the duty of nations as well as of human beings to recognize their inter-dependence, and to acknowledge their failings, in humble sorrow, yet with hope that genuine repentance and accountability will lead to mercy, pardon, and greater cooperation in the future." Awareness, mercy, and cooperation-- may we indeed embody these virtues, whether or not we fast this Thursday.

--originally published as a Traverse City Record-Eagle article.


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