IN the wake of the announcement of the second lockdown, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have written a letter to all the clergy and people of the Church of England.

They say: "Bearing in mind our primary vocation as the Church of Jesus Christ to pray and to serve, we call upon the Church of England to make this month of lockdown a month of prayer.

“More than anything else we know that we are in the faithful hands of the risen Christ who knows our weaknesses, tiredness and struggles and whose steadfast love endures for ever…

“During the first lockdown we cheered for the NHS every Thursday. During this second lockdown we invite you to fast in a way appropriate to you as well as pray for our nation every Thursday, for its leaders, its health and essential services and all those who suffer."

The ancient practice of fasting has seen a resurgence of late, inspired not so much by spiritual hunger as by physical obesity. Eating plans such as the 5:2 diet, warrior diet, 16/8 method and Eat Stop Eat all focus on the body’s response to fat burning, diet and losing weight.

But fasting is an ancient discipline rooted in an altogether different purpose.

In his spiritual classic, Celebration of Discipline, the author Richard Foster defines fasting as “the voluntary denial of an otherwise normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity.”

Foster recently suggested that in the 21st Century, when it comes to fasting, we need to look beyond the traditional understanding of fasting as abstinence of what we eat or drink and that in a life dominated by busyness, fasting often meant switching off the TV, turning off the phone, switching off the computer, with each of these things keeping Him from being with God and keeping Him from listening to what God was saying to him or from praying for others.

In their call for prayer and fasting, the archbishops echo the words of the prophet Isaiah who, writing to a nation in exile, spoke of the kind of fasting that was acceptable to God, fasting that was carried out not to benefit the individual but for those who suffered most:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?

“Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter - when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

“Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.”

This second lockdown will be harder than the first for many. In our collective response we would do well to heed the call of the archbishops and to focus away from ourselves and upon those most in need.