Addresses and Statements

Iftar Dinner 2023

31 Mar 2023

St Mary’s Cathedral House, 29 March 2023

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral House for our 13th annual Iftar dinner, honouring especially our Muslim leaders and people, but bringing together people of all faiths for feasting and friendship.

Representing our First Australians, I welcome Dr Lisa Buxton who heads our Aboriginal Catholic Ministry. Together with her I acknowledge the elders past and present of the Gadigal clan of Eora nation, traditional custodians of the land on which we meet.

From the Muslim Community I welcome: His Eminence, Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohammed, Grand Mufti of Australia;  Sheikh Shafiq Abdullah Kahn, Founder of the Al Faisal Colleges; Mr Samir Bennegadi, of the Australian National Imams Council; Mr Kazi Ali, President of the Muslim Cemeteries Board; Mr Ali Fares and Mrs Widyan Al-Ubudy representing the Shiite community; Mr Ahmet Polat and Mr Mehmet Özalp from Affinity; members of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils; and other leaders and representatives of the Muslim Community.  

From the Jewish Community I salute: Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Elton from the Great Synagogue; Rabbi Zalman Kastel from ‘Together for Humanity’; Mr Peter Wertheim AM of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry; Mr David Ossip, Director of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies; Mr Jeremy Jones of the Australian-Israeli Jewish Affairs Council; other Jewish community leaders; as well as representatives of the Buddhist, Hindu and Ba’Hai communities;

From the Christian Churches I recognise: their excellencies, Bishop Michael Stead from the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, Bishop Iokovos Miletoupolis from the Greek Orthodox Church, and Bishop Daniel of the Coptic Orthodox; along with clergy, religious and lay representatives of various Christian confessions;

From the Catholic Church I acknowledge: their lordships, Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay OLM of the Maronite Eparchy, Bishop Michael McKenna of the Diocese of Bathurst, and Bishop Richard Umbers, Auxiliary of Sydney; Msgr Paul Mingana, representing the Chaldean Eparchy; Fr Chaouki Ibrahim, representing the Melkites; Mr Chris Meney, Chancellor, of the Archdiocese of Sydney; Sr Giovanni Farquer RSJ, Director of our Ecumenism and Inter-religious Relations Commission, with Commission members; Mr John McCarthy, Chair of the Anti-Slavery Task Force; leaders of other Church agencies, clergy and lay people.

From the wider community I salute: Justice Francois Kunc of the Supreme Court of NSW; Mr Stepan Kerkyasharian AO consultant from the Anti-Discrimination Board; and Rev. Prof. Anthony Casamento, Vice President of the Australian Catholic University. And I welcome all other community leaders and faithful. It’s great to have you all in my home once more! 

Australian actor Chris Hemsworth, whom you’ll all know as the Marvel superhero Thor, also features in the National Geographic series, Limitless. In each episode he explores the limits of the human body through gruelling activities that reduce stress, build strength, improve memory, and so help us ‘Live Better Longer’.[1] He’s joined for the series by Peter Attia, a Canadian-American physician and longevity guru. In one episode, Attia guides Hemsworth through a gruelling four day fast where he can only have water and expected to catch his break-fast. Low on energy and “losing his mind”, Hemsworth said it was one of the most demanding things he’d ever attempted.[2] Attia kept him on task with promises that fasting prolongs life and improves wellbeing.

Fasting is going through a renaissance today. Proponents see it as a scientifically sound way of fighting disease and extend lifespan. Research has shown that moderate fasting and breakfasting helps detox or ‘spring clean’ body-cells, reset hormones, slow cell ageing and promote regeneration. There are countless books, podcasts and social media pages dedicated to prolonged fasting, intermittent fasting, and fasting mimicking diets, such as the 5:2 diet, the 16:8 diet, and plenty of others.

When I was a young man backpacking around the world to make up my mind about my vocation, I was in Egypt in Ramadan in mid-summer. Amidst temperatures as high as 55°C in the Valley of the Kings, our guides would not take even a drop of water before sunset. I was mightily impressed. It struck me as heroic, and I thought Western Christian fasting rather lame by comparison. It also struck me as interesting that fasting is a spiritual practice of the three Abrahamic religions, as well as the great Asian ones and others. I wondered if it meant the same thing for each, and what we might learn from each other.

Fasting means eating or drinking nothing at all, or eating and drinking in a very reduced way, for a time. In some religions it’s associated with abstinence from certain foods (such as pork) or drinks (such as alcohol). The great spiritual traditions teach in common that fasting is a way to purify body and soul, gain some self-mastery over the passions, strengthen relationship with God, and live in solidarity with the hungry and with the fasting faithful.

In the Hebrew Bible, life-long abstinence from certain ‘unclean’ foods is required by God’s law (Lev ch. 11 etc.), temporary abstinence from certain foods also (such as leavened bread at Passover: Ex 12:15-20), and voluntary fasts are recommended for certain times or purposes, such as penance for sin or preparation for marriage. The prophet Joel voices God’s call to “Come back to me, with all your heart, fasting and weeping, rending your hearts more than your garments” (Joel 2:12), and King David famously atoned for his adultery with Bathsheba by fasting (2 Sam ch. 12).

Communal fasts were also proclaimed on various occasions.[3] Leviticus establishes an annual Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur: Lev 23:26-32), to atone for sins by self-denial of various kinds. So, too, Tisha B’Av marks the destruction of the Temple and other terrible events in Jewish history with a fast. Fasting on these occasions demonstrates seriousness of contrition and grief, and opens the heart to divine forgiveness and healing.

The Prophet Isaiah teaches that there’s more to fasting than delayed eating: we must practice a fuller righteousness (Isa 58:1-14). He critiques fasting while acting selfishly, oppressively or quarrelsomely, and says God is only interested in genuinely humble fasting. “Is not this the fast I want: to loose the bonds of injustice… to let the oppressed go free… to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the destitute into your house, to dress the naked, and not neglect your own kin?” Fasting requires individual and communal introspection, self-evaluation and contrition, for restoration of right relationship with God and neighbour.

Fasting and abstinence feature in the Christian spiritual life also. Some spiritual problems, Jesus says, can only be addressed by prayer and fasting (Mk 9:29). But like Isaiah, he criticised fasting that did not represent a change of heart, and especially fasting intended to draw other people’s admiration (Mt 6:16-18; Lk 18:9-14). Jesus and his disciples were criticised for not fasting enough (Mk 2:18-20; Lk 5:34-35), but he taught that there are times for fasting and for feasting (Mt 9:15). In preparing for Easter, Christians have long imitated Jesus who fasted for forty days and nights before beginning his public ministry (Mt 4:2 etc.). When I was a boy, we all gave up meat on the Fridays of Lent; children often renounced chocolate for the whole six weeks; and parents the grog. It seemed heroic, even if exceptions were made for the Feasts of the Annunciation, St Patrick, St Joseph, and my birthday (which always falls in Lent!). In the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox traditions, and especially in the monasteries, fasting and other forms of askesis are more severe, and these mortifications are associated with prayer and almsgiving, practising humility and control of the tongue. Western Christians—not just Catholics—also fast to put away distractions and draw closer to God.

Nowadays some fast for a time from forms of self-gratification that have become too habitual, such as fasting from use of smartphones, social media, recreational shopping, or gambling (which happily both major parties seem determined to help us fast from). In an era of eating disorders and obesity, in a world of domination and excess—survival of the fittest and fattest—virtues like temperance might seem outmoded. But believers witness to the continuing relevance of moderation and self-mastery to physical, moral and spiritual health, and for perspective. Food or drink must not be our god; gluttony and drunkenness are serious vices; and the stomach should not rule a being as noble as the human person.

In the tradition of Isaiah and Jesus, St John Chrysostom taught that it does us no good to fast if we persist in “consuming” our fellows by exploiting or defaming them. “Instead of concentrating on gracing ourselves with Christian virtues, we garnish our plate with the bitter herbs of resentment, we spice our food with the salt of envy, and top it off with the sweet relish of self-righteousness… we need to embrace [a more] spiritual fasting and purge ourselves of these instincts.”[4]

Fasting, especially during Ramadan, is considered one of the Five Pillars of Islam. For these weeks Muslims abstain from food and drink during the day and only break the fast at sunset and at Eid al-Fitr. Rightly observed, Ramadan is a time of solidarity, gratitude and blessings.

As I understand it,[5] for Muslims fasting is God’s law and so an expression of surrender to God’s will. In hunger we realise how weak we are, how dependent upon others but especially upon God, as created beings. The distance between us creatures and the Creator God is infinite, yet we come closer to God by such spiritual practices. When we recognise that even simple things like life, food and family are divine favours, we appreciate them much more. So, after fasting we feast, rejoicing to be guests of the merciful Creator. In both fasting and feasting we say: Praise be to God, Creator of the universe, Sustainer of worlds, Lord of all gifts.

If fasting helps right relationship with God, it also affects our relationships with others. We come to appreciate that all human beings are needy as we are. This helps address our egotism and hopefully inclines us to assist others by prayer and alms.

Consistent with Isaiah and Jesus, the Prophet Muhammad said that “If a person does not avoid false talk and bad conduct during the fast, then God does not care if he abstains from food and drink.” Fasting should be a shield against the fire of the passions, and should make us more pious, not more self-satisfied. The Prophet set an example of fasting not only in Ramadan but at other times through the week and year. Great Islamic scholars such as Al Ghazali have emphasised fasting amongst a range of asceticisms or sawm that bring the senses, tongue, stomach, limbs and loins, under control and put them at God’s service.[6]

Despite differences of emphasis and practice, it is striking how much the three Abrahamic faiths have in common when it comes to fasting and break-fasting. Our Iftar Dinner shows it is something we can do together, and for all humanity. In our age faith is increasingly pushed to the margins. We might think of the euthanasia laws that will come into effect in November and require even faith-based nursing homes, including Christian, Jewish and Muslim ones, either to provide “Voluntary Assisted Dying” themselves or allow outsiders in to do so. Or the push from state bureaucrats to exclude all faiths from the operation of cemeteries. Or the recent moves by the Australian Law Reform Commission to stop faith-based schools preferencing staff of their faith, and to dictate what they can teach. There are some who would eradicate all religion from our civic life if they could.

Our response to such attacks is to fast and pray and care. And these are things, along with our best efforts at influencing our community and its leaders, that we can do in common. Whatever its physical benefits a la the 5:2 diet and living better and longer, we know fasting is good for the soul. Together we deepen and demonstrate our self-discipline, especially over our hungry passions; our humility, as we recalibrate ourselves in relation to God and our fellows; our devotion to and dependence upon the divine; and our care for the less fortunate who hunger for food, faith or friendship.

للاه جزاك Jazāk Allāhu Khayran!



[3] e.g. 1Kings 21:9,12; 2Chr 20:3; Ezra 8:21; Jer 36:9; Jon 3:5.

[4] Anastasios Gournaris, “Fasting from fasting,” in Kevin Corn (ed.), Fasting and Feasting in Three Traditions: Judaism—Christianity—Islam (University of Indianapolis, 2006), 9-10,

[5] Here I follow Yamina Mermer, ‘In Islam, Fasting is Feasting,” in Kevin Corn (ed.), Fasting and Feasting in Three Traditions: Judaism—Christianity—Islam (University of Indianapolis, 2006).

[6] E.g.