Lord, as our public fast begins

* Nowadays there is hesitation and confusion over what to do about the Biblical call to fast. This hymn, influenced by George Herbert’s poem ‘Lent’, assumes that we should answer that call.


Lord, as our public fast begins.midi


This hymn is offered as a worshiper’s prayer at the beginning of Lent. It is prompted by a sense that such prayer is needed, to help with charting the spiritual road to Easter.

The practice of fasting during Lent was established by the fourth century, but in the later twentieth century the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England considerably relaxed their rules for fasting and abstinence; the Orthodox Church, however, maintains older and stricter conditions.

My impression is that worshipers in the Church of England are not much helped to think that Scriptural teaching about fasting might be relevant to them. Yet Matthew 6.16-18 has Jesus present fasting as an opportunity for growing in joy.

The primary definition of fasting seems to have been in terms of abstaining from certain staple (not just luxury) foods. But the prophets looked for a more comprehensive understanding of fasting (see Isaiah 58.1-12, especially verses 3-6), with a focus on action for justice and community. This is the definition of fasting used in this hymn; specifically, part of the first stanza compresses lines from George Herbert’s poem ‘Lent’:

“Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast  / By starving sin and taking such repast / As may our faults control:…”

But even more is asked. We are to fast from the impulse to nurture our self-image and good reputation. Whether in almsgiving (giving to charity), prayer, or fasting (for whatever purpose), Jesus urges that his hearers do it secretly; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. The second stanza of the hymn picks this up, highlighting what may feel like a compulsion to be appreciated, or rewarded, for doing what we ought to do; instead, we take Paul as a model: We are treated…as unknown, and yet are well known (2 Corinthians 6.8-9).

 Crucially, this hymn tries to express the spirit of freedom which is in the Gospel. We feed on love…in freedom, not as ought or chore. Attuned to God’s good (not coercive) will, we aim to fulfil all that is asked of us (a classical definition of sin speaks of falling short of the target). We pray that, as our lives lengthen (‘lencten’ is the Old English word from which ‘Lent’ is derived) we may grow up in Christ in all to see.

This prayer asks two things: that we may discern the presence of Christ in all of life; and that Christ may be so formed in us that the divine image may shine through us too. The last line acknowledges that, whilst this is a lifetime’s prayer, the season of Lent presents a bite-sized opportunity to practice it in a specially focused way. It is an end to past-serving, fear-filled charms. It is a call to share God’s victory through Christ over all that demeans or degrades human longing.