The Joy of Fasting

With the season of Lent rapidly approaching, it is providential that this week’s Gospel discusses the issue of fasting. Jesus is questioned about why His disciples do not practice fasting as compared to the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees.

In His reply, our Lord uses nuptial imagery to explain why His disciples do not fast. The use of nuptial or marriage imagery would have been very familiar to the Jesus’ hearers.

Throughout the Old Testament, Israel is often likened to the bride of God, who continually calls the Jews to greater fidelity. When the Jews sinned, the prophets often likened Israel to an unfaithful wife. This theme continues in the New Testament. For example, in the Book of Revelation, St. John describes heaven as the great wedding feast of the Lamb. Utilizing this metaphor of the wedding banquet, Jesus likens Himself to the bridegroom. His disciples, who represent the Church, are likened to the wedding guests. Herein lies the reason behind why His disciples do not fast: It is because the great bridegroom, Jesus Himself, is among them. Christ’s presence among His disciples is reason for celebration — not fasting.

The Incarnation has ushered in a new era in salvation history. Like a new wineskin, Jesus ushers in a new chapter in man’s relationship with God. Christianity is not Judaism-deluxe. Rather, it is an entirely new dispensation with the God-man, Jesus the Lord, at its very center. Rather than focus on the external practice of fasting, Jesus challenges those questioning Him to consider the interior disposition of joy found in the disciples who have discovered Him.

With Ash Wednesday approaching, the Church presents us with the penitential season of Lent to rededicate ourselves to the spiritual value of the three traditional disciplines or works of Lent: prayer, fasting (or penance) and almsgiving (or deeds of mercy).

In regards to fasting, there is an ancient and revered tradition in the Church, which was reaffirmed at the Second Vatican Council, of performing acts of penance every Friday — not just on Fridays during Lent. For some, it may mean abstaining from meat every Friday, but these penances can be substituted for pious works or extra prayers. Nevertheless, every Friday should be a day of penance for all Catholics. Of course, Fridays in Lent have a different character — these are Fridays when meat may not be eaten. This type of mortification reminds us of our mortality and frees us for spiritual growth. Self-denial strengthens us to overcome the temptation towards selfishness which always lurks in the human heart. Freed from selfishness, we can more readily reach out to those in need through deeds of mercy or almsgiving.

Through fasting, we deny ourselves legitimate goods. We do not fast because sensible pleasures are to be avoided per se. Instead, we fast because when the senses are satiated, we tend to become indifferent towards spiritual goods and the value of sacrifice. Thus, all fasting should lead us to the joy in having discovered our Lord, the great bridegroom Who beckons each of us, who constitute the Church, His bride, into more perfect communion with Him.

Fr. Magat is parochial vicar at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church in Colonial Beach, VA and St. Anthony of Padua Mission in King George, Virginia.

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

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