For as long as I can remember, my mom has given up sweets for both Lent and Advent. As a kid, this struck me as bizarre, but I never asked her about it. I also never followed her example. Mom’s rigorous discipline seemed more than enough for one family. Plus, someone had to eat the leftover Halloween and Christmas candy.
The spiritual practice of fasting from food continued to befuddle me as I got older. Whether it’s a meal on Ash Wednesday, meat next Friday, or a certain favorite food throughout all of Lent, what’s the point? Wouldn’t God want us to use the energy and commitment fasting requires to do something positive for the world instead? Because you don’t have to look hard to see that in so many ways, the world is not how God wants it to be.
Take hunger, for instance. The United Nations reports two disturbing statistics: Each year, while one-third of the world’s food is wasted, 3.1 million children under the age of five die from poor nutrition. That’s one every 10 seconds. Here in South Jersey, one in six people doesn’t know where his or her next meal will come from.
How could fasting from a particular food or skipping a meal do anything to respond to this crisis?
I did a bit of Googling about fasting and stumbled upon a short news story about a 2009 Lenten message written by an Argentinean Cardinal named Jorge Bergoglio — now Pope Francis.
Even though the article is just a few paragraphs, it sheds light on two main reasons why Pope Francis recommends fasting, and it helped me see fasting as an integral part of working for justice.
Fasting builds solidarity.
In his 2009 message, then-Cardinal Bergoglio wrote that fasting helps us overcome our indifference toward those who are homeless, hungry, or suffering in other ways. “We show no interest in their lives, their stories, their needs or their future,” he wrote. “How many times did their pleading looks make us look the other way and walk by? When we get used to something we also become indifferent.”
Fasting can wake us up from this indifference, Bergoglio wrote. Anyone who has fasted knows the repeating cycle: (1) a pang of hunger, (2) the immediate instinct to find something to eat, (3) a conscious decision to resist that instinct. Each conscious decision to continue fasting should trigger a reminder of what others face. Then fasting becomes a way to create what Cardinal Bergoglio called “solidarity with those who fast involuntarily.”
Fasting is not just about giving things up.
The solidarity developed through fasting calls for positive action on behalf of those who are hungry. Cardinal Bergoglio paraphrased a passage from Isaiah 58 in his message, urging the faithful of Buenos Aires to fast as “God desires,” that is, “giving bread to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, clothing to the naked, and not turning our backs on our neighbor.”
Fasting is not meant to be done in place of outreach and work for justice. They are complementary. If we want those who are hungry to have enough, then those of us who have more than we need must consume less. We must sacrifice. We must fast, and then contribute our leftover resources to organizations that work for food security and economic development.
“Today we need to fast by working so that others don’t have to fast,” Bergoglio wrote. “Today we can only practice fasting by taking of the pain and powerlessness of the millions who go hungry. Whoever does not fast for the poor cheats God. To fast is to love.”
One way you can fast by working this Lent is by participating in the second annual faithFULL Food Drive, coming up on Sunday, March 1. Parishes and schools throughout the diocese will come together in attempt to collect 100,000 pounds of food for area food banks and pantries. Consider tying the drive in to your Lenten sacrifices. Is there a luxury food item you could give up for all or part of the season? Is there a particular meal once a week you could prayerfully skip? If so, think about using the money you’re saving to purchase nonperishable food items for the drive. And as you sit down to eat this Lent, try to remember to include those who are hungry while saying grace. This way, your Lenten fasting, prayer, and almsgiving can complement each other.
It’s a great opportunity for me this Lenten season to commit to joining my mom in her action of love, and integrate fasting into my own small efforts to make the world closer to how God wants it to be.
Mike Jordan Laskey is director of Life and Justice Ministries, Diocese of Camden. This column was adapted from a piece that originally ran on Loyola Press’ “Arts and Faith” blog, and can be found here: http://www.loyolapress.com/why-do-we-fast.htm