Bishop Dewane: Fasting and Abstinence, it is more than food Print this post

In the last edition of the Florida Catholic, the lead story addressed what Lent is and why it is celebrated. Within that story, the “three traditional pillars” of Lenten observance were briefly explained. Drawn from the Gospel reading on Ash Wednesday, these three pillars are Fasting and Abstinence, Prayer and Charity, and Almsgiving.

In the next three editions of the Florida Catholic, for this Lenten Season, I will examine these three practices to provide a better understanding of the history, teaching and spiritual meaning behind each one.

Let us begin with Fasting and Abstinence.

A Brief History

Fasting was an important and meaningful Lenten practice of the early Christians in commemoration of Christ’s Passion and Death. During these earlier days of the Church, the observance of fasting was very strict. One meal was allowed per day and, even in that sole meal, both meat and fish were forbidden. By the fifteenth century, the one meal was taken at noon.

The current Lenten discipline for fasting, set forth by the Roman Catholic Church, consists of both fasting and abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as well as abstaining from meat each Friday of Lent.

Christian history is filled with examples of those who fasted. Going all the way back to Moses, in the Book of Exodus it is learned that during the time in which he was given the 10 Commandments, Moses fasted for 40 days and 40 nights.

The Israelites lost tens of thousands of soldiers in battle against the Benjaminites. It was not until they fasted and prayed that the Israelites returned to battle and defeated the Benjaminite army.

In 1 Samuel, the Israelites fasted for a day and prayed for forgiveness of their sins. When Jonathan heard of how Saul mistreated David, he fasted in response to his grief. There are many, many more examples in the Old Testament of how fasting was an important part of the faith life of the Jewish people.

Similarly, the New Testament is also full of examples of fasting. After Jesus was baptized, He went into the desert and fasted for 40 days. Anna is commended in the Gospel of Luke for worshiping in the temple day and night with fasting and prayer. In the Acts of the Apostles, Saul fasted for 3 days after he was blinded on the road toDamascus. Like the Old Testament, the New Testament offers additional examples of how fasting is closely connected to holiness and repentance.

What Fasting and Abstinence Should Be

Fasting means more than just denying oneself of food, and abstinence involves more than just denying oneself of meat. Fasting and abstinence are virtuous acts which require that we grow in charity and the virtues as a result of our mortifications. Fasting and abstinence without having charity towards our neighbor does not please Our Lord, because it would be an empty and perhaps even prideful act.

There are two guiding principles for the observance of Lent: first, to grow in our love for Jesus Christ Crucified, and second, to practice extra penance in reparation for our sins and those of others. In our Lenten disciplines, we strive to make amends for the times in which we have failed to love God, and repair the harm done by disobeying the will of God. Further, the practices of fasting and abstinence should be aimed to endure some “pain” in order to root out the sinful pleasures which are the substance of our sin.

Fasting is also an important part of living our baptismal promises in everyday life. We are called upon to show Christ’s love through Baptism. In Baptism we are made anew because Original Sin has been washed away and we are made members of the Body of Christ. By denying oneself a basic need for a short time, fasting provides us an opportunity to constantly be renewed, and conform ourselves more closely to Christ and His Church.

Fasting and abstinence must be linked to the Church’s concern for the needy as well. In the Book of Isaiah it is written, “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.”

In the New Testament, Christ calls all to offer assistance to those who suffer, spiritually or corporally. A spiritual benefit of fasting and abstinence is that the needs of others are brought into greater focus. Perhaps there is something more you can do to help those in need—and by fasting and abstinence those types of revelations become clearer. In this way charity becomes more of a spiritual exercise.

What Fasting and Abstinence Can Do

Fasting and abstinence can open one’s heart to conversion in a special and profound way. Fasting is often referred to as a simple means of developing self-control. Today, children and young people are often taught “not to control” many of their inordinate and inappropriate desires, but instead to explore them. At least for a time, adults were told not to control their desire for the biggest house in the neighborhood, but instead to overextend in the purchasing of a mortgage. Similarly, advertising is constantly pressuring consumers to eat, drink and by merry—and yet society continues to show more and more signs of depression and spiritual need. Fasting pushes against these modern trends and shows all people that by simplifying life and denying oneself of food, meat, or whatever, for a short while, we can grow closer to Christ and all who suffer.

Additionally, fasting can serve as aid in prayer, as hunger for food reminds that we should hunger for God even more. After all, who enjoys being hungry? Certainly not me. But that hunger should demonstrate how fleeting temporal desires are, and how the satisfaction of holiness is what really and truly “feeds us” for eternity.

Some individuals, usually for health reasons, are unable to fast during Lent. This is understandable and certainly permissible. Those in that situation should find some other way to express self-denial and repentance.

The minimum requirement of fasting and abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and abstaining from meat on Fridays during Lent, should just be the beginning of one’s Lenten journey in these disciplines as we grow closer to Christ. After all, fasting is not about food, and abstinence is not about meat; rather, both are about spiritual conversion and renewal. I encourage each of you to reexamine fasting and abstinence this Lenten Season and possibly rediscover them as virtues in your life.

All are invited to live this period of forty days as a pilgrimage of repentance, conversion and renewal!

It is my prayer that this Lent be a time of grace in which God leads us, in union with the crucified and risen Lord, through the “experience of the desert” to the joy and hope of Easter.

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