Keeping the Fast: It’s not Just for Lent

Easter will soon be here.  We are getting ready for the feast.  But before you reach for that Cadbury cream egg or hot cross bun remember the hard work of trudging through that spiritual desert these past several weeks.  Beware the leaven of the Pharisees and the sin of overindulgence and idolatry.  The golden calf at the base of the mountain could be disguised as a chocolate bunny wrapped in a gold wrapper.   It’s hard to pray after eating too much.  Jesus warns against overindulgence.  The remedy?  Practice fasting beyond Lent to live a life of holiness beyond the Resurrection.

Don’t Try This at Home

Fasting isn’t easy; it takes discipline and hard work.  A first-century document called the Didache, or the Teaching of the Apostles, recommends fasting twice a week, on Wednesday and Friday.  Fasting can be as extreme as nothing but bread and water, or it could mean skipping lunch, or foregoing snacks between meals.  What matters is the intent behind the sacrifice.  Are we doing it for us or for Him?

Recently a Florida woman died in her home after a lengthy religious fast.  The Saint Petersburg Times reported that she locked herself in her bedroom and told her husband, a Pentecostal pastor, that she was not to be disturbed.  Nearly a month passed, and when she didn’t come out her family broke into her room but she was dead.  The husband said he and his wife have fasted before, so he didn’t check on her because he wanted to respect her calling to pray and solitude and fasting.  “This is our way of spending time with God,” he told the newspaper.  “People don’t understand if you don’t do it.  She was doing what she loved to go and what she felt God called her to do.”

Not So Fast

During Lent, we undertake penitential practices, forty days in the desert, to fast and pray and resist temptation, to purify ourselves in preparation for the Resurrection.  We are encouraged to make good confessions and to adopt a spirit of contrition as preparation for the Eucharist on Easter.  Lenten purification practices — fasting, works of mercy, almsgiving, prayer— — prepare us to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, who gave himself on the cross that we might life with him in paradise.  For though we have sinned against God, he remains determined to restore us to his friendship.  As the angel does with Elijah, God provides the sustenance for our Lenten journey — the Bread of Life.  But we have to accept his will, and that means going hungry, in our stomachs and even our hearts.  It means accepting our mortality and bearing in mind how we have fallen short when it comes to living the gospel.   That can be a heavy burden to bear.

Remember:  The laws of fasting and abstinence command the faithful to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  Fasting is described as the following: to eat one regular-sized meal (preferably at three p.m., the hour of the Lord’s death on the cross) and two small meals according to one’s needs.  The two small meals together must not equal the main meal.  Men and women between the ages of 18-59 are required to make these sacrifices.

Is This Fast Enough?

The call to holiness through fasting has never been abrogated, that is, done away with, by the Catholic Church.  In fact, it has always been how we express contrition, in the hope of restoring our relationship with God.  Pope Paul VI, writing after Vatican II, suggested that fasting should be reflective of our needs and situation.  A misconception about fasting is that it means not eating.  In some cases it does, but there is much flexibility.  Dietary laws are open to interpretation.  Abstinence does mean forgoing certain foods, like meat on Friday, but fasting itself is more about dietary restriction—it is not a diet—than controlled starvation for the sake of spiritual health and penance.

Why go hungry?  The idea of restricting our eating for spiritual purposes today seems at best arcane.  Holy men and women throughout the ages in the Church have always known that fasting is necessary for a fruitful prayer life.  “One does not lie by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4; cf Deut 8:3). … Why do it?  Because it is part of our tradition, it’s what makes us Catholic!  It used to be a recognizable sign of our faith, like Jews or Muslims that don’t eat pork.  They could say, “Catholics don’t eat meat on Friday; what a strange religion!”  For us, it is not strange; it’s Tradition with a capital “T.”

Physical desire and weakness simulate our spiritual hunger for the divine fulfillment.  Common sense and moderation are necessary, but so is honesty and sacrifice.  We must follow our hearts.  How far can we go with this?  A lot further than we think but not as further as we hope to.  I doubt I’m going to collapse if I miss a meal but I may just gain more time to prayer because I’m exchanging a knife and a fork for my rosary and breviary.

Stay Hungry

Lent is all about the fast: afflicting our soul through sacrifice.  But it is not just restricting what we eat, and it doesn’t have to end on Holy Thursday.  It means approaching God with a contrite heart and a steadfast spirit (see Psalm 51).  We acknowledge the passing away of the world, as we did a few weeks ago on Ash Wednesday, and our mortality and the ashes traced on our foreheads initiate that pilgrimage.  Remember, the minister said, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel,” for “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”   Know anybody who is immortal?

Beware: guard against the leaven of the Pharisees.  That is, we mustn’t draw attention to ourselves and exaggerate our suffering.  Jesus warns us “not to look gloomy like the hypocrites” (Matthew 6:16).  Lenten penance is an inward display of our sorrows to God who reads the character of our souls.  “Penance therefore…  is a religious, personal act which has as its aim love and surrender to God: fasting for the sake of God, not for one’s own self.”

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  • lizvt

    I hope this seminarian gets a little more accurate education before he’s ordained. The traditional time for the Good Friday service (formerly known as the Mass of the Pre-sanctified) is 3 P.M. so it would be a little difficult to eat the main meal of the day at that time. Not only that, but we are not supposed to fast on feast days. Feast days, and especially Easter, are days of joy and celebration. That doesn’t need to entail eating so much that you need to unbutton buttons, but it does mean making a distinction between the time of Lenten fasting and penance and our Easter joy.

    Also, I’m not sure that he writer intended it, but his mention of the woman who died after the lengthy fast makes it sound like this was a laudable act. The reason why the Catholic Church instructs people not to take on severe penances without the permission of their spiritual director is because we can be mistaken about what God is calling us to do. This was clearly a tragedy, not a good thing.

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