Most of us in the Catholic world began our annual observance of Lent this past Ash Wednesday, although Sunday of the First Week of Lent officially starts the season. So, if you are off to a slow start, you are not as far behind as you might think!
I provided some general, practical thoughts for approaching Lent in an article published on the Sunday that immediately preceded Ash Wednesday. Today, I would like to draw our attention to fasting as one of the three pillars of Lent and focus on why it is necessary not to neglect it.
In recent years, we have all heard expressed the sentiment that goes something like this, “I’ve always given up something for Lent, so this year I decided that instead of giving something up, I am going to do something more. Maybe this is something we have said or possibly heard a friend, family member or priest say. And the doing something more is a good idea. But I suggest to you that doing something more at the expense of giving something up deprives us of a necessary element of the Christian life – the Cross – and thus deprives us of what Jesus taught was crucial to the life of his disciples.
Take up your cross
Jesus taught us that taking up the cross is a must if we plan to follow Him. “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?” (Luke 9:23-25)
In reflecting on this passage recently, I was particularly struck by the words “deny himself” and “daily”. Certainly this applies in general to our daily witness and in particular to our prayer and our almsgiving, but let us not forget that self-denial also pertains to acts by which we do without good things for love of God to deepen and advance our spiritual life. I was talking to some friends about the Ash Wednesday fast and it is amazing how quickly we, with good humor intended, joked about how some of us thought about the relief that midnight would bring when we could “break” our fast and maybe have a very late snack before turning into bed!
At the time, we all had a brief laugh, but it made me think more deeply on what might be lurking beneath the humor. Many of us have fallen so far from the practice of self-denial that even when the Church requires us to make a very easy fast on only two days of the year (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday), we find doing so somewhat difficult. If we are going to follow our Lord’s teaching about the daily Cross seriously, we will need to rethink our daily walks.
Fasting Increases Our Hunger for God
As I mentioned in last week’s article, acts of fasting and self denial free us to pray more fervently and faithfully; fasting also frees our resources of time and material to give more generously to those in need. This is the connection between fasting on the one hand and prayer and almsgiving on the other. As I have previously written, fasting and other forms of self-denial, as spiritual practices of materially subduing and controlling the physical appetites of the body, helps us, by God’s grace, to enable the soul to more perfectly and freely pray; leading to a deeper union with God and thus we become better stewards of the gifts God has given to us, freeing us to more effectively care for our neighbor, especially those in greater need than we. Simply put, fasting and acts of self-denial, far from making us more hungry for food and other created things, when done for love of God, makes us hunger all the more for God and His will for us.
We can see this in the example that Christ gives to us. The following passage from the Gospel takes place immediately after Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan River.
Filled with the holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'” Then he took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant. The devil said to him, “I shall give to you all this power and their glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish. All this will be yours, if you worship me.” Jesus said to him in reply, “It is written: ‘You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.'” Then he led him to Jerusalem, made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and: ‘With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus said to him in reply, “It also says, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.'” When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from him for a time. (Luke 4:1-13)
After His baptism, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert – it was there that Jesus experienced and withstood the temptations that overcame the Israelites in their desert journey. Notice that before undergoing these temptations, which according to the Gospel were the very reason given for journey into the desert, Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights. The Gospel tells us that after this fast, Jesus was hungry. We might think, if we think as humans do, that such a fast would be a cause of weakness and vulnerabilty at the very moment of temptation. But such thinking is wrong. Instead, the example of the Lord is meant for us and teaches us that while at this moment of human weakness, we have become spiritually stronger and enabled by God’s grace to resist the temptations of the evil one. Before beginning His public ministry and before undergoing His temptations, Jesus fasted and so should we. Filled with the Holy Spirit at our own baptism, we are to spend time in the desert, praying and fasting, so that we too can overcome the temptations God allows to come our way.
Fasting is a cooperative cause of our holiness
To be a disciple of Christ means that we have said yes to the Lord and embarked on a spiritual journey in His company. It is our yes to His call for us to be holy. Vatican II reminds us that this call is universal – it is given to each of us. And here is what Jesus again has to say about being His disciple, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple… everyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” Fasting and self denial are essential elements of discipleship. Fasting and self denial teach us through good habits to avoid and overcome bad habits. In addition to helping us to control the bad habits of disordered attachments, we learn to more deeply hate sin and love the sinner.
“The Lenten season should retain something of its penitential character.”As regards catechesis, it is important to impress on the minds of the faithful not only the social consequences of sin but also that aspect of the virtue of penance, which involves the detestation of sin as an offense against God.” The virtue and practice of penance form a necessary part of the preparation for Easter. From that inner conversion of heart should spring the practice of penance, both for the individual Christian and of the whole community which, while being adapted to the conditions of the present time, should nevertheless witness to the evangelical spirit of penance and also be to the advantage of others. The role of the Church in penitential practices is not to be neglected, and encouragement is to be given to pray for sinners; this intention should be included in the prayer of the faithful. [Paschales Solemnitatis, 1988, Congregation for Divine Worship]
Time for an honest appraisal
We should be clear and honest with ourselves. If we allow our weak will and emotions to deter us from the practice of fasting and acts of penance, we should recognize the red warning flag that shouts to us that we are neglecting our Lord’s teaching to embrace and take up our Cross as He took up His. Yes, definitely spend more quality time in prayer this Lent. Yes, actively look for the people God places in our daily lives to be recipients of our almsgiving. But do not neglect to look for those daily, and often ordinary, crosses He gives to us. Pray to see them this Lent and to embrace them with fervent hearts and devout souls. They are the necessary paths to holiness and a deeper love of God.
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