The last month of the Bahá’í calendar is devoted to fasting, in preparation for the new year, which falls on the vernal equinox (March 21). Bahá’ís are often asked to answer concerns about health and general well-being when attempting a fast for such a long period (19 days). But the material aspects are actually quite mild, in that we can eat and drink before sunrise and after sunset. Further, fasting is limited to believers between the ages of 15 and 75 or so, and not required of anyone unable for health reasons: illness, pregnancy or nursing, for instance.
"Fasting is a symbol. Fasting signifies abstinence from lust. Physical fasting is the symbol of that abstinence, and is a reminder; that is, just as a person abstains from physical appetites, he is to abstain from self-appetites and self-desires. But mere abstinence from food has no effect on the spirit. It is only a symbol, a reminder. Otherwise it is of no importance. Fasting for this purpose does not mean entire abstinence from food. The golden rule as to food is, do not take too much or too little. Moderation is necessary...A man is not fit to do service for God with brain or body if he is weakened by lack of food. He cannot see clearly." - 'Abdu'l-Bahá, quoted in Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era, p. 184
From a religious perspective, fasting has been around as long as mankind has sought to develop a spiritual nature. The sacrifice of some material symbol to show fealty, piety or control of the 'lower' or 'animal' self, has been practiced for millennia.
For Bahá’ís, the nature of this fast, although it involves complete abstention from food and drink from sunrise till sunset each day, is spiritual. It is, "essentially a period of meditation and prayer, of spiritual recuperation, during which the believer must strive to make the necessary readjustments in his inner life, and to refresh and reinvigorate the spiritual forces latent in his soul. Its significance and purpose are, therefore, fundamentally spiritual in character. Fasting is symbolic, and a reminder of abstinence from selfish and carnal desires." - Shoghi Effendi, quoted in The Book of Laws [Kitáb-i-Aqdas], p. 176-7
I personally use the period of Fasting for meditating on the year just past, evaluating my progress on goals, for setting new goals for the coming year--sort of a spiritual housecleaning.
We have such high ideals in the Bahá’í Faith, very lofty goals and a perfect Exemplar ('Abdu'l-Bahá) to use as our model when deciding what to do or be on a daily basis. Further, we have a blueprint from Bahá'u'lláh, the Prophet-founder, for building a community and culture devoted and best suited to assist us in achieving those goals.
Some assembly is required, of course--and it is easy to become discouraged with one’s own progress. I don't know about you, but when I think about improving my character and serving humanity, I've always had something a bit more glamorous in mind than merely serving as a test of how well the people around me have developed their virtues!
For instance, one of my current goals is to develop a sense of gratitude--for everything, all day, no matter how small--and especially when I recognize some positive movement in the right direction. When I'm not feeling grateful, it usually means God has provided for me yet another chance to learn--and after most of a lifetime, I've had some experience with 'opportunities for spiritual growth' and I'm not much inclined to receive them eagerly!
The time of fasting provides me with not only the extra hours in the day, which otherwise are involved with planning, preparing and eating the mid-day meal, for evaluating my progress and meditating on goals for the new year, but also supplies some very concrete reasons to be grateful.
How often do we really slow down enough to taste each bite of food or drink? Or feel grateful that we have them available? Or that we have skills and physical ability to prepare, chew and swallow? Or even the freedom to choose when to eat?
It is so easy to take a million small bounties for granted!