Pancake day marks the eve of Lent, 40 days of Christ fasting in the wilderness. I was invited by a Christian in my neighbourhood in Aspley, Nottingham to bless their event. He told me that in 1767, the Squire (owner) of Aspley Hall was a Roman Catholic, those were dangerous days for them when they were burnt at the stake or fined. However, the Squire asked his Catholic priest to bless the food and the festivities at the first pancake day there. Today things are much better for the Catholics, however, in their place, there is ‘the new Catholic’ the fifth column ‘the Muslims’. Simon Banks wrote, “it is for this reason that I would like to educate the ‘suspicious locals’ and therefore have invited the local Imam to bless the pancake celebrations”. So I stood at the very spot where 246 years ago the frightened Catholic priest would have blessed the pancakes. Here I reflect on the similarities of Lent and the month of Ramadan.
Lent is the six week period leading up to Easter. It’s one of the most important times of year for many Christians around the world, particularly those within the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox traditions, held at a similar level of importance to Advent, the build-up to Christmas.
Our faith provides clear teachings and guidance on how to live an austere life, amongst the many spiritual disciplines and exercises that have been practised by religious people, abstinence from food and drink in the form of fasting is very common in most religious traditions. Muslims fast in the month of Ramadan, Christians during the Lent period, Jews during the days of Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur, Hindus also fast on certain days like Purnima and Ekadasi.
Although Lent and Ramadan are two very distinct devotions. Muslims do not eat or drink anything nor have sexual relations between dawn and dusk, this can be anything between 12-18 hours in winter and summer. Respectively, the Christians of orthodox and traditional denominations will observe the fast by abstinence from eating meat, fish, eggs and fats until Easter Sunday. Others may choose to give up their favourite foods and have no set time, so it is considerably easier.
What is the purpose of fasting during Lent or Ramadan?
Fasting is a good way of learning to control one’s desires and basic bodily instincts. It is actually a very powerful way of making the point that I am the master of my own destiny. I can control my eating and drinking habits. During the month of Ramadan, we fast all day, avoiding food and drink from dawn till sunset. We engage in the remembrance of God, silently and loudly. The entire family, the whole community immerses itself in spiritual devotion. Fasting is such a wonderful spiritual exercise, it is an attempt to become spiritual and to disengage and detach temporarily from the material world.
Many Christians use Lent to study the Bible and pray more intensively, making use of the many devotional books available. Similarly, Muslims also turn to their book, the Majestic Quran during this month. We aim and are encouraged to complete its full recitation in the 30 days.
Fasting is not just avoiding food and drink but a powerful shield against our lowly desires and vices. It teaches self-restraint and helps to develop patience. This is austere living. Austerity is a word that we hear very often these days in the media, I wonder how many times we have bothered to look up the meaning of this oft used word? The dictionary meaning of austerity is; severely simple, morally strict and to be stern. Simple living means to be free of luxuries, the paraphernalia of modern gadgets, and practising the three holy R’s of environmentalists; Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, whilst morally strict would mean to be kind and caring, patient and forgiving, generous and gentle. The idea of sternness is to take life seriously and to believe that we have a greater purpose in life.
In addition to refreshing the bond with God, it’s an opportunity to develop a caring attitude towards others. A time to be charitable, throughout the month Muslim charities in Britain will collect millions of pounds for developmental and relief work for the poor.
The Health Benefits of Fasting
Although the primary purpose of fasting is ‘so that you may develop God-consciousness’ (Baqarah: 186), it carries health benefits as well. The obvious is weight loss, for thirty days a whole meal and a snack or two are taken away from our daily food intake. This is equivalent to about 1,000 calories per day, 30,000 calories in a month, roughly the amount needed to burn off eight pounds (3.6 kg). Fasting brings about a complete physiological change, giving rest to the digestive tract and the central nervous system. The trouble is what we miss during fasting we often more than make up for afterwards during iftar.