Ash Wednesday

In my post A Spirituality of Sweets, I tried to make the point that fasting is intended primarily to remove barriers between ourselves and the Lord. We should fast from whatever separates us from the Lord. That is true, of course. Nevertheless, actual physical fasting is an important, even indispensable, part of this conversion. 

The Scriptures, from beginning to end, witness to the role of fasting in our journey into God.  The great Biblical figures, from Moses to Paul, all fasted. Jesus himself fasted, and spoke about fasting to his disciples – as we see in today’s Gospel reading. Fasting has always been seen as a natural response to the reality of sin and the need for conversion. We note, for example, how the people of Nineveh fasted when they accepted Jonah’s criticism of their ways, in the hope that God would have mercy and forgive their sins. The Church continues to mark off certain days, like today, as fast days. We continue to mark off the Fridays of Lent as days of abstinence from meat.

Fasting and abstinence have become much less common among American Catholics, compared with those practices, say, fifty years ago. In its place, we have joined other Americans in obsessing about diet – what we are eating, what is healthy or unhealthy, how we can lose weight, and so on. Certainly, a healthy diet is a good thing. However, fasting is not about dieting or losing weight. It has to do with a different kind of loss, and a different kind of gain.

Why fast, then? Why does the Church continue to invite us to take on this practice, at least on certain days? I will outline a few reasons, and then point a very helpful book on the topic for those who would like to explore the richness of the Church’s teaching on fasting.

  1. Fasting as an identity marker.

Fasting and abstinence are practices that remind us of our Catholic identity. It is never enough to simply say in our minds that we belong to the Catholic Church (or any other group). We humans need concrete, physical reminders of this belonging. Americans, for example, show their identity as Americans in many ways – how they dress, how they speak, the music they listen to, and many other ways.  Accordingly, by not eating meat on the Fridays of Lent, we remind ourselves of this identity. By eating less on fast days, we remind ourselves once again. We are in union with generations of people who have walked the same path. We choose, humbly, to accept their wisdom and join then in fast and abstinence.

2. Fasting as a sign of repentance

The message of the Gospel begins with a call to repent and believe the Good News. To accept this message means to admit, to ourselves and to others, that we are sinners in need of repentance and mercy. We need the unmerited grace of God. Our own efforts cannot save us. So, we fast. By eating less food, we also symbolize our desire to step back from whatever sin may have a hold on us. We show that we have not always used rightly the gifts that God has given us. We show that we cannot live by bread alone, but only by every word that comes from the mouth of God. We literally make a space in our bodies for God, that we will remember that we need to make a space for God in our hearts as well. We then wait, with hungry bodies and hearts, for God’s merciful love.

3. Fasting as an acknowledgment of fragility

When all seems well with us, we can feel as though we are almost invulnerable. Skip even one meal, or just eat less than usual, and we discover how fragile we really are. We discover how precarious our lives in this world really are. The health challenges that come with advancing age can tell us this without fasting, of course. But for those who are healthy and strong, it is an important reminder. Even the healthiest of us always lives on the razor’s edge. This reminds us to center our lives (once again) on a firm trust in God and a willingness to live God’s will at all times, as far as we are able.  If our lives are to be renewed, it will be by God’s mercy and not by our own abilities.

4. Fasting as a source of compassion

Most of us can eat what we want, when we want, much of the time. Some people do not have that luxury. Fasting helps us feel, in a limited way, what others must suffer every day. It helps us feel, in our own bodies, the pains of others and thus helps us turn to them with compassion. Fasting and acts of charity have always been closely linked in the Catholic tradition. In fact, fasting is seen as not true unless it leads to this kind of generous, compassionate outreach.

If you’d like to find out more about the tradition of fasting in the Church, then I recommend that you read The Spirituality of Fasting by Msgr. Charles Murphy, a priest of this diocese. It will help you appreciate the Church’s teaching and practices on fasting and to live them out with a renewed sense of purpose.