The 40-day penitential season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and culminates in the Easter Triduum, the celebration of Christ's passion, death and resurrection. Christians observe Lent primarily through fasting, prayer and almsgiving.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Lent reflects the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert fasting and praying before his public ministry began.
While Moses (Exodus 34:28) fasted to prepare for God's revelation, Jesus took it a step further by doing the practice out of love.
"Jesus' mission to announce and bring the kingdom of God begins with a complete and total self-gift to the Father, in love, through fasting," according to Our Sunday Visitor's Catholic Encyclopedia.
Jesus' devotion to the Father is to be emulated by his followers.
For Christians, "fasting is not only a bodily expression of our need for God; the practice itself is a pathway which can lead us to the reality of God's kingdom," the encyclopedia said.
Cackie Upchurch, director of Little Rock Scripture Study, said fasting is an ancient custom that can be found in almost all religious traditions. In the time of the Old Testament, the Jewish people regularly fasted from food and drink, but they did so for different reasons.
"It was not about a devotional practice. It was really about petitioning, or praying for repentance, or sorrow," she said.
Tearing one's garment and putting on sackcloth and ashes while fasting was common. King David did this to repent and petition for the life of his son. But when the baby died, he stopped. (2 Samuel 12:16-23)
According the Law of the Israelites, which is spelled out in the books of Leviticus and Numbers, the only place fasting was an act of worship was on the Day of Atonement, which continues today, Upchurch said.
In the New Testament, fasting is rarely mentioned, but when it is, it's usually in reference in how not to do it. But that does not mean it wasn't practiced, she added.
During Jesus' Sermon on the Mount he said when fasting "do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. ... But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden." (Matthew 6:16-18)
So the presumption is "that of course you're going to be fasting." The important thing is "you do it from the heart," Upchurch said.
"Jesus doesn't want a typically religious practice just to be taken for granted. He wanted them to understand the purpose of it," she said. "He really is critical of the fasting practices that had become just generally rote."
She called his teaching a "kind of evolution in Scripture." Jesus confirmed what the prophets Micah, Hosea and Isaiah had said while speaking for God in saying the kind of fasting he desired.
"'The sacrifice I desire from you is that you rend your hearts and that you serve the poor and walk humbly with God,'" Upchurch said, summing up the prophets' instruction.
If the external act of fasting does not reflect "something internal in us" then it is not what God wants, she said.
In the Catholic faith, people fast out of repentance or petition, but ultimately, the goal is to "draws us closer in a more regular way to the heart of God," Upchurch said.
For Abbot Jerome Kodell, OSB, of Subiaco Abbey, fasting is a way to gain freedom. This concept is rooted in the Benedictine tradition of the early Desert Fathers. It acknowledges that "the human being is a complicated system, and we don't always know our motives, and we are not always as free as we think we are."
The idea of freedom coming from self-denial is countercultural. Popular belief is that "when I do anything I want to do, I'm free," he said. "But actually the reason I'm doing these things may be because of slavery."
Choices are often made "because society tells me too, because my emotions tell me too, because my hang ups tell me too, because some other person who I want to impress tells me too."
Msgr. James Mancini, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Tontitown and a charismatic liaison for the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, said, "As a consumer society, we're encouraged to satisfy all our appetites. If it feels good, do it, and that's not the spirit of Christ."
Referring to Paul's letter to the Romans, Msgr. Mancini said fasting is a recognition "that the Spirit and the flesh are in battle with each other." In fasting, "we try to limit or modify the demands of our appetites. The appetites are not wrong, God gave them to us for a purpose, but they definitely need discipline," he said.
Denying self to draw closer to God, "is a way of putting God back in control," Abbot Jerome said.
This kind of fasting is asceticism, which comes from the Greek "askesis," which refers to a bodily exercise or athletic conditioning.
"If you're an athlete you've got some idea in your mind of why you're doing that; you're not just going through the motions," he said.
The same applies to fasting. If it is done without a clear purpose then it can become a rote practice.
During Lent fasting helps "prepare us for renewing our baptismal promises; sort of like to re-enlist," the abbot said.
"The Easter Vigil is every Christian's baptism date, even though we do it at different times of the year, it's sort of like the anniversary of our birthday in Christ," he said. "So we want to free our minds, free ourselves to make that profession of faith as freely as we can."
Like Abbot Jerome, Msgr. Mancini said fasting "limits the demands of the flesh so that the Spirit would have more sway in guiding our lives."
He has a devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which takes his practice of fasting to a whole other level.
"I tie my fasting in reparation to console the heart of Jesus," Msgr. Mancini said. "He has revealed that he is very offended by sin and neglect. We can do reparation for ourselves, but also for the salvific work of Jesus Christ."
During Lent Catholics 18 to 59 years old are required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. This means eating only one regular meal and two smaller ones that do not equal a regular meal. (Code of Canon Law, cf. 1252))
Catholics are also encouraged to do acts of penance and charity beyond what is prescribed by the law. Many do this by "giving up" something like sweets or a bad habit. Others might add a daily rosary to their prayer life or visit the sick when they otherwise wouldn't.
The monks at Subiaco also fast on Wednesdays throughout the year. And this doesn't necessarily mean fasting from food or drink. It could mean giving up or even delaying for a while anything that would be a personal sacrifice. It's about putting "a distance between yourself and gratification," Abbot Jerome said.
This is good news for anyone unable to give up meals for health reasons or those outside the ages of 18 to 59.
"The spirit of fasting, the spirit of penitence should never be lost on any age," Msgr. Mancini said.
"Once we do start denying the flesh, we're able to sense Christ's influence much more (because) it's in our spirit that we're able to relate to him," he added.
Sister Macrina Wiederkehr, OSB, of St. Scholastica Monastery in Fort Smith, said for her the whole purpose of fasting is to "become a space for God."
The nationally known author, retreat leader and spiritual director said Lent is a reminder of "what I should be doing all the time."
At the beginning of Lent, she asks herself: "What are the obstacles that prevent me from living with the heart of Christ?"
And the answer is "almost always, I'm not empty enough," she said.
She then discerns what might be blocking her relationship with God and that "helps me to know what to fast from."
She places an empty bowl on her personal prayer altar to remind her of what she has to become to be able "to hold Christ and others."
"If I'm too full, if I'm too cluttered with stuff, then I can't do that," she explained.
Sister Macrina said many Catholics "just cringe at the thought of fasting," but it is nothing to fear. It helps us "get to the core of that space within us that is made for God."
The Church offers "us a 40-day retreat" every year to grow in relationship with God, she said.
But staying focused the entire 40 days can be a challenge.
Abbot Jerome said he recommends the practice of "bite-size" spirituality.
"I think people have been scared off because every time you hear words like prayer and fasting, you get a vision in your mind of a huge change in your life and you're going to have to live like a priest," he said. "But actually God only needs the heart. He doesn't need all this time, and all this big effort. But we need to do something physical that will engage our heart to make that choice."
Msgr. Mancini said a way to avoid the temptation to cheat during Lent is to do something "that involves stretching our faith."
This could mean choosing to serve a meal at a homeless shelter instead of going out to dinner with friends.
It's a matter of stretching "the spiritual muscle" the same way one exercises his or her body. And helping others, "erodes selfishness too, which is the biggest obstacle to love," he said.
Sister Macrina recommended confiding in a "soul friend," someone "I can share my struggle with."
Ultimately she believes the most important word in spiritual life is "practice."
"I used to think if I broke my Lenten resolutions after a week, I'd just stop. Well, I have the rest of Lent," she said. "What I would encourage people in is this constant effort toward faithfulness, and constantly practicing and sharing this with someone."
She also thinks people are too demanding of themselves. They fall into the trap of "comparing themselves with others instead of trusting that God works on each of us in a different way."
The important thing is to act out of love and openness.
"If we in the pews try to accept what the Church is calling us to do, it would mean changing that obligation into love," she said.
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