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.
Fr. Nels Gjengdahl