As a child, I recall being taught by Sister Celestine to give up something for Lent. The whole class of second graders, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, gave up various sweets that were available and enjoyable to children of the ages of 7 and 8. Years later, we were still observing the same discipline during the 40 days of Lent. Sister Celestine was teaching us the value of keeping the Lenten fast.
Fasting is one of the three disciplines encouraged for the faithful to undertake during this time of Lent. We are also encouraged to pray and to give alms. These are suggested, so to help us prepare to celebrate the passion, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Lent is a penitential time, when we engage in penances, in the form of prayers, fasting and almsgiving, so to heal the damage done by sinning. Sin weakens us, making it easier to sin again; penance strengthens us so to do the will of our heavenly Father.
Prayer is the raising of our hearts and minds to God. By spending time in prayer, we seek the grace to know and to fulfill the Father’s will for us. We pray to have our faith deepened, so that we may live the faith in all its completeness. During Lent our prayer should model that of Jesus: “Not my will, but thine be done” (Lk 22:42).
The giving of alms allows us to set our hearts on the things of heaven. This begins by recognizing the blessings that God has bestowed upon us and then, using these gifts to give God glory by bestowing them on others. In this way we mirror the life-giving love of Jesus upon the Cross.
Whereas the disciplines of prayer and almsgiving have continually been encouraged, how often do we hear about fasting? Many may have been told not to give anything up, but, rather, to do something instead. We take on some activity such as going to Eucharistic adoration or doing some good work. Commendable. Yet, these are forms of prayer and almsgiving. One might say, “I gave my time to do these.” Yet, in this day of technology we usually are able to make up for what we did not do. So again, what about fasting?
Some will suggest they are giving up using foul-language for Lent or some other bad habit. Again commendable, but not fasting. Fasting is the giving up of something lawful, that is, something that we are permitted to have or to use. We should not be using foul language to begin with, so, while it is good to work on not using it, it is not quite the sacrifice that is fasting. However, fasting can assist us not to curse or to gossip or to do any other sinful pleasure we tend to indulge in.
By fasting we begin to control our appetite for the things that give us pleasure, beginning with the most obvious, food and drink. Now most of the things that give us pleasure are not sinful, especially when done in moderation. Yet, unchecked, pleasurable things (or activities) can become more important than the things of God. How often does a television program keep us from our prayers, or some sporting event from going to Mass or performing a charitable act.
The spiritual masters teach that by learning to control our appetite for food and drink we can learn to control our appetite in other areas, such as gossiping, cursing, uncontrolled anger, lust or even unnecessary spending. As Saint Leo the Great preached one Lent: “We must moderate our freedom in eating, so that our other desires may be reined in by the same control.”
Our fasting can take many forms: giving up candy, junk food, soft drinks, desserts, second helpings at meals, smaller meals or even less meals; each as one is able. Often, people fast from these for medical tests, or physical health. Surely it can be done for spiritual health. Fasting done in union with Jesus allows us to unite our sacrifice with his sacrifice upon the cross. When we feel a little hungry it helps us to recall the sufferings of Christ for our redemption. Our hunger also reminds us that others suffer hunger daily, or suffer in some other way. Our fasting will lead us to be more attentive to those around us.
Our Lenten disciplines are three: prayer, fasting and the giving of alms. We need to practice all three for them to bear fruit. Our fasting will help us moderate our freedom so to desire to use our time well by spending some of it in prayer. Our fasting will help us be attentive to the needs of others, leading us to respond generously by giving alms. By prayer, fasting and almsgiving we will be configured to Christ Jesus allowing us to live in Easter Joy.
Father Jason Rocks is currently in Rome at the Pontifical North American College for advanced studies.