SALT LAKE CITY — Timothy O’Malley won’t go to his office or church or a friend’s house this Friday, just as he hasn’t any other day this week. But, unlike on other days, he also won’t eat more than a simple cup of soup.
The first set of sacrifices stem from social distancing requirements, which aim to slow the spread of COVID-19. His meal plan, however, is inspired by his faith. Nearly all Catholics fast on the last Friday before Easter.
“It’s all part of our worship of God,” said O’Malley, who serves as director of education at the University of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life.
This year, Catholics won’t be the only people of faith skipping meals on Good Friday. President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has asked members of his church to spend the day fasting and praying for relief from the coronavirus, and invited nonmembers to do the same.
“I invite all, including those not of our faith, to fast and pray on Good Friday ... that the present pandemic may be controlled, caregivers protected, the economy strengthened and life normalized,” he said on April 4. “Let us unite in pleading for healing throughout the world.”
The Rev. Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, issued a similar call Wednesday to people of faith across the country.
“On Good Friday, let’s ... pray and fast throughout the nation,” he said.
Although many religious traditions teach that fasting is a meaningful spiritual practice, it’s rare for so many people of faith to skip meals at the same time, religion experts said. Fast days typically only unite members of a single religious community, but, this week, fasting will connect people across denominational lines.
“We’re all in this together,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest who writes on Catholicism for Religion News Service.
That message is especially meaningful during the coronavirus pandemic, when community-mindedness is saving people’s lives.
“There’s no way of protecting ourselves from this virus by ourselves,” the Rev. Reese said.
Why do Christians fast?
Fasting has been part of Christianity from the beginning, but no two Christian groups fast the same way. Your denomination determines not just the frequency of fast days, but also how much you’re allowed to eat when they arrive.
For Catholics, fasting, which is required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, involves replacing breakfast and lunch with light snacks and eating only a small supper. Many church members, like O’Malley, further restrict themselves, but extreme measures aren’t seen as more holy.
“This is not about one-upmanship and who can fast the most. Rather, it’s something we do as a community and as a family,” the Rev. Reese said.
Latter-day Saints, on the other hand, fast at least once per month. Each time, they abstain from food and drink for about 24 hours and donate the money they would have spent on meals to the church welfare system.
“There’s always been support for helping the hungry and needy through fasting,” said Jonathan Stapley, a Latter-day Saint historian and scientist.
Although fasting rituals differ from church to church, most Christians share similar beliefs about why altered eating habits matter. Fasting is an opportunity to draw closer to God and focus more deeply on spiritual practices like prayer, the Rev. Reese said.
“The idea is you’re emptying yourself so that you can be more receptive to receiving the spirit and receiving God,” he said. “If you have a full stomach and you’re bloated, you’re apt to fall asleep, not to be open to the presence of the spirit.”
Fasting can amplify the practice of prayer by reducing distractions, said Stapley, who is the author of “The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology.”
“You’re creating sacred time and space,” he said.
You’re also signaling to God that you’re aware of your flaws and planning to do better, O’Malley said.
Fasting “is an act of penance,” he said.
In the final days before Easter, fasting is especially significant, the Rev. Reese said. By trading indulgent treats for simpler, smaller meals or by skipping a few meals altogether, Christians are, in a sense, following Jesus Christ’s lead.
“Fasting (during Lent) is about imitating the actions of Jesus as portrayed in the gospel and uniting yourself with him in his sacrifice on the cross,” he said.
To be clear, the level of discomfort you experience during a Good Friday fast doesn’t come close to what Jesus experienced during his crucifixion, O’Malley said. But the ritual can still lead to a deeper understanding of the Easter story than you get from simply reading about it in the Bible.
Fasting “helps you remember, in a bodily way, the day that Christ died,” he said.
A ‘unifying practice’
O’Malley has fasted on the final two days before Easter for most of his life and thinks of the practice as more of a blessing than a sacrifice. Fasting brings him closer to his family and fellow Catholics and helps him prepare for Easter fun.
“It’s a unifying practice,” he said.
That’s especially true this year, when Latter-day Saints and other people of faith will join with Catholics in a Good Friday fast. O’Malley may not be able to leave his house to attend church or host a large holiday gathering, but he will still feel connected to others seeking God’s comfort during the coronavirus pandemic and celebrating the Easter story.
“Easter comes no matter what and the prayers of the church are full of joy,” he said.
That may not seem like much in the face of many more weeks of social distancing, but, for O’Malley and other Christians, it’s incredibly comforting.
Easter is a reminder that COVID-19 does nothing to change God’s love, the Rev. Reese said.
“That’s something that can give you hope and strength,” he said.
Through fasting, Christians honor God’s unwavering support and also recommit to offering the same kind of care to their surrounding communities.
“It brings a society together,” O’Malley said.
That’s a significant outcome during this challenging time, as the Rev. Reese noted. A grumbling stomach won’t cure the coronavirus, but it could remind someone of their own power to help people in need.
“Experiencing hunger reminds us of our brothers and sisters who have much less than we do,” he said.