Twice a year, we Catholics are obliged to fast from eating: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Naturally, this seems like a peculiar practice. When we do not understand the “why” behind our practices, many people can be tempted to ignore the practice and even become a detractor of the practice. So what is fasting and why do we fast?
Fasting is the refraining from eating for a set period of time. In the Catholic faith, we define it as consuming only one meal as well as two other smaller meals that would not together equal a full meal. It should also be noted, that only those who are ages 18-59 are obliged by the Church to fast, however, if you are under the age of 18 and mom decides that you are to fast, you should probably follow her direction.
So now for the bigger question: Why do we fast?
First, let us turn to the Bible. In the Matthew 6:16, Jesus says, “When you fast…” Notice here, Jesus does not say, “If you fast,” he says, “When you fast.” As Jesus is speaking to his disciples, there is the expectation that they will be fasting.
One reason for fasting is to gain self-mastery. We all have passions or desires for various things. However, these desires can grow out of control and eventually become destructive. For example, the desire to have money is not, in itself, evil. However, if that desire is uncontrolled, then we will be tempted to steal money that does not belong to us and ultimately that desire leads to our suffering. If we have periods where we resist our desires, we can put them under control. Thus, when we fast, we are learning to have self-mastery.
As second reason for our fasting is for discernment. We see in Acts 13 that the Apostles were fasting before they made the decision about Judas’ replacement. The fasting was a way for them to open themselves to the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. When we fast, we necessarily turn to God to fill us. We do not have the assistance of the things of the world and we are more oriented toward the things of heaven.
Finally, fasting is a form of worship. Many people think about the self-benefit for every action. However, fasting is a sacrifice for God. All worship is about someone else and when we fast, we do not do it for ourselves, but rather we do it for God. If we make this sacrifice of food, we turn the day into a form of worship.
So, as we prepare for our second day of fasting this Lent, Good Friday, let us understand the “why” behind our action and so make the fast an act of holiness. May God continue to bless you with his mercy and love this Lent so that you might rejoice with him wholeheartedly in his Easter resurrection.
Nota Bene: We as Catholics are obliged to fast for one hour before we receive Holy Communion. More on this in a future article.
The Fourth Sunday of Lent each year is called “Laetare Sunday,” which means “Rejoice Sunday.” This is the Sunday where the priest is allowed to wear rose colored vestments, as opposed to the violet vestments. The name “Laetare
Sunday” comes from the introit (entrance antiphon) which sets the tenor for
the entire mass. The introit comes from Isaiah and reads:
Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her. Be joyful, all who were in mourning;
exalt and be satisfied at her consoling breast.
In the middle of our Lenten fasting and penance, we are reminded to rejoice. This may seem contradictory, however, it is a Catholic reality. In the middle of suffering, we are still a people who rejoice...why? We are still able to rejoice because we know the reality is that Jesus is risen and that he offers us forgiveness for our sins.
It often happens that people have a sin that they regularly commit, a sin that doesn’t seem like it is going away. When this happens, many people react in one of two ways: Either they deny that the sin is actually a sin in an attempt to quiet their conscience or they will stop trying to eliminate the sin thus allowing it to continue on. I say that these are both wrong because neither acknowledges the essential element to our sins, namely, Jesus Christ.
Our Lord Jesus Christ is more powerful than any sin that we can commit. He is more powerful than all of the sins of the entire world. He is the one to whom we need to reach out to in prayer. He is the one that is able to bring us the hope of a conversion. He is the one who conquered sin and death on that Easter Sunday. We must not be tricked into thinking that our sin is more powerful than Jesus and his forgiveness.
And so, on this Sunday, the Church reminds us to rejoice because the celebration of God’s death of sin is near to us again and we can truly be a people of hope.
In Lent, we are often presented with the image of the desert. Even the decorations around our Sanctuary elicit that idea of the desert. The desert is a place of dryness and desolation. This is representative of what the Israelites experienced for 40 years after their escape from Egypt and it is representative of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert where he fasted and prayed.
This image can also be representative of what can happen to us in our spiritual lives. The truth is that almost every great Saint and every Catholic has gone through periods of time where their spiritual life felt dry. By “dry,” I mean that our relationship with God can feel as if it is without any fire or life. Our time of prayer can feel as dehydrated as our hands in the dead of winter. It feels like prayer does nothing to lift us up, nor does it make us feel at peace as it once did. All of this can lead to frustration, anger, and resentment toward God.
If this occurs, the first thing that we must do is resist the temptation to dismiss prayer. We will be tempted to set aside prayer as being “useless” because we are not feeling any consolation or response. Resist this temptation. If we are not approaching God, how can we expect our relationship with him to grow? If we shut off our time for connection with him, how can we ever expect that passion to return? Yes, it does mean that we will not be “productive” in the traditional sense. However, it is in these moments where God is working.
Similar to a seed that is planted, it’s growth is invisible. It is preparing under ground for its beautiful eruption. The work must be done in quiet and in silence. If the seed is disturbed, it will not reach its full potential, and so the gardener must wait. The seed still needs water and it still needs warmth, but it must work in quiet—so too with our souls.
There are times that God will be working in ways that we cannot perceive. We must still water our relationship with God through prayer. We must still give it heat by staying close to our Lord in the Eucharist. At time when God is ready, all of that preparation will result in something beautiful that will bear fruit for ourselves and the whole Church.
If you experience this time of dryness, remember to resist the temptation to distance yourself from prayer, rather, pursue your relationship with God all the more. If we do this, the harvest will be abundant.
Fr. Nels Gjengdahl