Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of our annual observance of the penitential season of Lent. The three penitential practices of Lent — practices that derive from the Sacred Scriptures as well as our Christian tradition — are prayer, almsgiving and fasting.
The Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday each year mentions each of these penitential practices. As we begin this holy season, I invite you to give special consideration to the practice of fasting.
Fasting was a practice of God’s people in the Old Testament. Moses fasted before he received the Decalogue from God. The prophet Elijah fasted before meeting the Lord on Mount Horeb. Most significant, however, is the example of Jesus’ own fasting during his 40 days in the desert. We read in St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, and afterwards he was hungry” (Mt. 4:1-2).
Some might wonder whether fasting still has meaning and value for Christians today. How does depriving ourselves of something that is good, namely food, help us to be better Catholics? Before answering that question, the pope adverts to the fact that throughout Christian history there has been a constant teaching that fasting does indeed help us to grow in holiness.
Saint Peter Chrysologus (406-450), bishop and doctor of the Church, wrote: “There are three things by which faith stands firm, devotion remains constant, and virtue endures. They are prayer, almsgiving and fasting.” Of fasting he says: “Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ears to others, you open God’s ear to yourself” (Sermon 43).
Saint Basil holds that “fasting was ordained in Paradise,” when God commanded Adam to refrain from eating of the forbidden fruit (cf. Sermo de jejunio). And so, if Adam disobeyed the Lord’s command, the believer, through fasting, intends to submit himself humbly to God, trusting in His goodness and mercy.
Fasting, then, is directed to eating the “true food,” which is to do the Father’s will (cf. Jn. 4:34). When tempted by Satan to satisfy his hunger in the desert, Jesus responded by proclaiming that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (cf. Mt. 4:4). It is this openness to doing the will of God that fasting facilitates. But how?
After 40 days of fasting, Jesus was hungry. He was very weak bodily. We might think that his physical weakness would also result in spiritual weakness. But just the opposite was true — and so it is for us. Fasting actually strengthens us to resist temptation and sin. By denying ourselves the pleasures of some foods we grow in our resolve and our ability to say no to sin. Denying material food, which nourishes our body, nurtures an interior disposition to listen to Christ and be fed by his saving word. Through fasting and praying, we allow him to come and satisfy the deepest hunger that we experience in the depths of our being: the hunger and thirst for God.
There is even more to fasting than strengthening ourselves for the battle against sin. Fasting ought also to move us to charity and mercy toward our neighbor. The prophet Isaiah speaks for God when he writes: “Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: that a man bow is head like a reed and lie in sackcloth and ashes? . . .This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, . . . sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own” (Is. 58: 5-7). Lest fasting be no more than the empty formalism that Jesus warns us about on Ash Wednesday, charity must be the final purpose of our penitential acts.
I pray that every family and Christian community use well this time of Lent in order to cast aside all that distracts the spirit and grow in whatever nourishes the soul, moving it to love of God and neighbor.
I assure you that each and every one of you will find a very special place in my prayers during Lent. Please pray for me.