Fasting --- is it relevant and necessary in Lent in the 21st Century?
The answer is YES and here is why!
First a word of explanation.
The long-standing tradition in all the jurisdictions and branches of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church is that (a) Ash Wednesday, the first day of the 40 days of preparation for Easter, is a day of complete FASTING, as also is Good Friday, and, (b) that each of the following 39 days [which do not include Sundays] is also a day of abstinence, in the sense of not consuming meat and dairy products and of eating moderately such food as vegetables, grain, nuts and fruit.
Thus it is not surprising that the Collect for the First Sunday in Lent in The Book of Common Prayer (1662, 1928) in referring to the 40 day fast of the Lord Jesus prays: "Give us grace to use such abstinence, that our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may ever obey thy godly motions in righteousness and true holiness."
The purpose of the fasting can be expressed simply in terms of (a) consciously uniting ourselves with the Lord Jesus who himself fasted for forty days; (b) humbling ourselves before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father to repent of sins and seek his blessing; (c) clearing our minds and focusing our bodies for self-examination, prayer and communion with God; (d) uniting with other believers in the one Body of Christ and household of God through space and time in this act of devotion to our Lord, and (e) preparing ourselves before God rightly and devoutly to celebrate the Atoning Death and Glorious Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Fasting is not done to earn our salvation before God or to show God what depths of self-discipline we are capable of. Our Lord met such errors in the Pharisees and responded with teaching on Fasting in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6). Fasting is done as is praying, meditating, contemplating, reading and singing as a spiritual discipline and as a means of grace for those who are members of the new covenant of grace. It is a way of making space in our souls for the operation of the Spirit of God to do his work of sanctification.
The apostles fasted and prayed (see e.g., Acts 13:3; 14:23 & cf. 2 Corinthians 6:5 & 11:27) and so did the leaders and members of the Early Church (see e.g., The Didache). Converts to Christ and Christianity were required to engage in fasting before they were baptized on Easter Eve and thus the tradition of fasting was part of the Christian life even before church membership was fully granted.
Along with the discipline of fasting and thus not eating, there is also the ancient Lenten discipline of almsgiving. That is we give the value of the meat and dairy products not eaten to needy persons inside and outside the membership of the Church of God.
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon, Vice President and Emissary at Large of the Prayer Book Society of the U.S.A.