Come out swinging, that's what I say.
To those of you who are reading this column who do not know either a) what a "fast" is in general or b) what it is to members of the LDS church specifically, a short(ish) explanation is in order.
We believe that the Lord has commanded us to fast once a month. That means no food or drink of any kind (contrast to many other religions' views of a fast, where food is forbidden but water is all right). The fast occurs once a month, on the first Sunday of the month. Members are commanded to fast for the period of two meals, which most members interpret to be a 24 hour period beginning after dinner on Saturday, skipping breakfast and lunch on Sunday, and ending with dinner on Sunday night.
In addition to merely skipping meals, however (which is what LDS people refer to as "dieting"), there is more to the fast. First of all, the money that is not spent on nourishment for those meals is supposed to be donated to the Church for the benefit of the poor and needy. And I can personally attest that that is where it does go, having been a beneficiary of the Church's assistance, both as a child when our family was in dire financial straits, and as an adult when similar situations arose. Additionally, having served in the Church in a capacity that led me to be in charge of processing those fast offerings, I can say with firsthand certainty how seriously the Church organization takes those offerings. I used to tell people that the two quickest ways to get kicked out of the Church were to practice polygamy or to steal fast offerings. The money is viewed as sacred - as something offered up to the Lord - and so is kept and used with that sanctity in mind.
Beyond that, however, there are also spiritual purposes behind the fast. An obvious one is that, by refusing to give in to our bodies' need for food and drink because the Lord has commanded it, we are learning to place His needs above ours, and to subjugate the imperfections of our carnal bodies to the perfections of the Lord's demands. We thus become closer to the Lord, and for that reason many members of the Church also view this as a special time to ask the Lord for special blessings, or to show special thanks. Members will also at times fast at different times during the month when in special need, again because they feel that the fast makes for a "clearer communication link" if you will, between them and the Lord, and thus makes it more likely that they will receive aid/answers for their difficulties and tribulations.
All that is well and good, but I would like to posit here another blessing of the fast: I believe that it may, more than any other practice of the Church, teach us how to be like Christ.
Now first of all note that I say may. As always, I have to reiterate that I am not an official - or even unofficial - spokesperson for the Church. Merely a member hoping to share some good things with others. So once more we swim out into waters of some uncertainty, given that they originate from me, rather than from the prophet or from one of the canonical works of scripture.
Nonetheless, I think my viewpoint has merit.
Many would take immediate umbrage, and say that Temple work is the thing that most closely approximates us to doing the work of Christ: after all, there we are performing saving ordinances, becoming "Saviors on Mount Zion" as we perform the rites and rituals necessary for the passing into Heaven on behalf of those who have gone before. And I do not dispute that there are incredible analogues between Temple work and the work of Christ.
But think about the fast for a moment. What are we doing? We are subjugating our own body to our spirit. Is that not exactly what Christ did in Gethsemane? Indeed, his body anguished to the point where he sweat as it were great drops of blood - a sure sign of mortal danger if not impending death. And what do we do when we fast? We intentionally put ourselves into a state of discomfort - albeit on a much smaller scale - in order to accomplish certain things.
What were the things Christ was trying to accomplish on Gethsemane (and later on the cross)? Simply put, "to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (Moses 1:39). In other words, He was - through his suffering which was accomplished by an act of spiritual willpower overcoming physical weaknesses - seeking to perfect the physical and spiritual state of all God's children.
Now, what do we do when we fast? Again, we put ourselves intentionally into a state of mortal discomfort (if not peril - nowhere will I claim that we even remotely approach Christ's sacrifices and works), in order to bring to pass the physical safety (the analog to the immortality Christ sought) and conjunctive spiritual well-being (analogous to eternal life) of our fellows here on earth.
This last bit bears a bit of amplification. How is the spiritual well-being of a person helped by providing him or her with bread to eat? some may ask. And the answer is actually quite simple, and its necessity shown by the Savior's own actions. The answer is that it is very difficult to think on the Kingdom of God when one is starving. It is very hard to serve others when you cannot lift your head for want of food. It is well-nigh impossible to branch out to think of one's neighbors when one's immediate family is starving. In sum, our ability to serve God is directly linked to our health and ability to secure for ourselves at least the basic necessities of human existence: food, shelter, water... all things that fast offerings provide access to for countless thousands across the world.
And how did Christ show that He Himself understood this principle? Why, by feeding the multitudes. He understood that they were weary, yet wished to hear more of His teaching. He could have continued teaching them without regard to their physical needs - after all, He had walked the desert without food or drink for 40 days and 40 nights without food or water, so surely He could have gone on without stopping for a snack.
But I suspect He knew that His listeners could not. They would listen better with food in their bellies. They would understand more if they could devote more attention to Him and less to the gnawing at the pit of their guts (not to mention the children whining about wanting to go home).
Further, the fast is one of the few things that we do where we are providing a service that the recipients absolutely cannot provide for themselves. Someone has lost a job and cannot make ends meet. Someone has been tragically injured and cannot meet the demands of the hospital bills. On a larger scale, a nation is devastated by a hurricane or a tsunami and cannot heal themselves without outside intervention and assistance. Is this not almost exactly descriptive of the state that we all find ourselves in with respect to our ability to enter into the Kingdom of God? It is something we simply cannot do on our own: we need someone else's help. And so again the fast shows itself ever more to be akin to Christ's atonement in a way that few if any other practices are.
It seems to me that many of us as Church members seem to focus on fast day as a) something of a pain, something to be endured rather than savored (guilty); and b) something that is meant primarily for us. And I suppose in a way it is primarily for us, because if we learn to fast - to truly fast, as fasting is meant to be practiced - we will become more like Christ. Not merely for the standard reasoning - because we have subjected our flesh to our spirit, because we have communed with God, because we have purified our hearts - but because we will have taken active part in his work and his glory. We cannot bring to pass man's immortality and eternal life, of course, but then, everything we do on this earth is preparatory. So rather than immortality and eternal life, earned for others by sweating drops of blood, we achieve health and well-being, earned for others by missing a few meals.
The fast. I am constantly shamed by how I belittle it in my own practice of it. Because I suspect that, should I ever truly practice it as it is meant to be practice, I would already have one foot in Heaven.