Why do we fast? What spiritual benefit can be derived from depriving ourselves of food or drink? In today’s Scriptures, Isaiah asks us to proclaim a fast with trumpet blast. In the Gospel, the Pharisees ask why the disciples of Jesus don’t fast. There are only two fast days left in the Catholic calendar (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday), and anyone who is over the age of 59 is exempt from this discipline. Is it possible that this particular form of penance is outdated?
If we pay attention to the Prophet Isaiah, we learn a great deal about fasting: “This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; 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” (Isaiah 58:6-7).
Fasting reminds those of us who live in a land of plenty that there are many who live without. I would go so far as to say that denying ourselves our favorite food during Lent (chocolate, desserts, etc.) really has no genuinely spiritual effect on us if it doesn’t remind us of that fact. Denying ourselves the use of tobacco or alcohol can improve our physical health, but fasting is not about our bodies. Trying to lose weight is not in and of itself a spiritual exercise.
I can remember one particular episode when I was in grade school. My mother didn’t always serve dessert after our supper. However, more often than not, there would be a treat before bed. Sometimes my father would make popcorn; other times we would have chips or shoestring potatoes. I decided that I would forgo these treats one particular Lent. I surprised myself and made it all the way to Easter. I was so proud of myself that I had been able to keep my Lenten resolution.
Now that I am older and, I hope, wiser, I realize that the pride that I felt was not exactly the benefit that I should have derived from this penance. Because I was only a young child, I can forgive myself that response. However, I now realize that fasting, or any penance for that matter, should not result in pride.
Self-denial when properly practiced should lead us to the realization that we are dependent upon God for all that is good in our lives. It should also remind us that we are called to share what we have with those who go without. If we listen to Isaiah, we should be able to come up with a far more effective Lenten discipline which would motivate us to reach out to others and share our blessings with them.
As all of the Bible teaches us, when one person has more than he/she needs, many go without.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator