This is the first of a 6-part series on Lent focusing on Fasting, Prayer, Almsgiving, Confession, Forgiveness and Suffering. Today Father Scalia starts us out with the “most conspicuous,” Fasting.
By: Rev. Paul Scalia
The most conspicuous (and perhaps dreaded) aspect of Lent is fasting. Technically, the season (indeed, the entire liturgical year) contains only two fast days: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. On those days, we are permitted only one meal and two “collations” (snacks, basically) needed to keep up our strength. These are days of abstinence as well — so, no meat.
Fasting is deep in our faith. Moses fasted 40 days on Mount Sinai (twice, in fact) and Elijah fasted on his 40-day journey to the same mountain. Saints such as Benedict and Bruno commend fasting to us, as well. But the ultimate inspiration and reason for our fasting is our Lord Himself. He fasted in order to approve and sanctify this practice. Lent commits us to fasting as a way of accompanying Him in His.
But why should we fast at all? Saint Thomas Aquinas identifies three reasons.
First, To bridle the lusts of the flesh. “For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want” (Gal 5:17). This opposition of body and soul that we experience is not of God’s design. It is the result of original sin. And our own sins of the flesh exacerbate it. The more we give in to the body’s desires, the more it rules over our soul. Fasting reasserts the proper rule of the soul over the body, to get the body to participate in the life of the soul.
Second, That the mind may rise more freely to contemplation. We are all familiar with the “food coma” — the drowsiness and lassitude that sets in after a satisfying meal. Afternoon meetings are miserable. And we don’t want to hear the after-dinner speaker; we just want to crawl off and take a nap. This truth holds in the particulars, and also in principle: the indulgence of the body prevents the soul from its work of contemplation. Giving the body whatever it wants weighs down the soul. We are less likely and less able to pray when the body wants to rest and digest. Here we see how one Lenten practice (fasting) links up with another (prayer). The more disciplined we are in fasting, the freer the soul is for the labor and attention prayer demands.
Third, To satisfy for sins. Our Lord did not fast for the above reasons. His body was perfectly subject to His soul, and He contemplated the Father perfectly at all times. He fasted as a way of offering Himself for sins. He fasted for us, to offer that suffering for our sins. His fasting in the desert is really the beginning of the offering of His Body.
“I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). By offering our bodies in fasting, we heed the Apostle’s exhortation. We assume a little suffering and make a sacrifice of it to atone for sin.
With these fundamentals in place, a couple of other observations…
The supernatural outlook. Fasting is not a self-help program, diet, or contest. Yes, you should improve in self-control, you might lose weight, and you will be tested. But we have to shed our worldly motives. In the end, fasting has a spiritual, supernatural purpose. It is a weapon in spiritual combat and an offering of one’s body in union with Christ…in reparation for sin.
Give up. In addition to fasting strictly speaking, we also have the broader meaning of it: “giving something up for Lent.” Unfortunately, this has gotten a bad rap recently. People talk about doing something extra rather than giving something up. Well…Why not both? In fact, under the Lenten heading of “Almsdeeds” we should be doing something for others. But fasting — giving something up — is essential. The first step of the spiritual life is to cut away from ourselves those false supports and comforts…so that we can experience our poverty more profoundly and cling to Him more strongly. If we cannot go without, then we will not know what it means to depend on Him.
Fasting prepares us for mercy. Forgiving another person requires sacrifice, the ability to go without. Mercy, in going beyond the demands of justice, requires that we forego — give up — what is our due. If we have no acquaintance with fasting and self-denial, then we will have a more difficult time foregoing justice for mercy.
Fasting prepares us for the Eucharist. We cannot hunger for the Bread of Life on a full stomach. This simple truth inspires the Church’s Eucharistic fast (a meager one hour before receiving Holy Communion). If we always indulge ourselves in “comfort food,” we will never desire the only food that satisfies. Fasting makes us hungry…and reminds us that we have a deeper hunger that only He satisfies. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4)…and by the Word made flesh on the altar.