Fasting: A discipline of Lent
Fasting now is a growing trend, but for different reasons. People fast to keep their physical beauty. They want to become slim or to remain slim. Some fast for health reasons. Others fast as their commitment to take care of our planet – to avoid waste of food and to reduce fossil use. Consuming meat consumes more fossil fuel. Still others use fasting as a way of protest, as in hunger strikes.
Long before these reasons for fasting came, religions have already been using and advocating fasting for spiritual reasons. They are ways to promote better self-mastery and to help a person to connect more with one’s own spirit and with God. Thus, fasting and prayer are connected together.
Christianity too promotes fasting. It is one of the disciplines of lent, together with prayer and almsgiving. Jesus did not do away with fasting. But he has given a different reason for it. We fast not only because others do it, but because of our solidarity with Jesus’ suffering. “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast,” (Mt. 9:15) Jesus enjoined. Hence we fast especially on Fridays when we commemorate the Lord’s passion and death.
There is another reason for Christian fasting. At the time of the prophet Isaiah the people voiced out their complaint to God: “Why do we fast, but you do not see it? afflict ourselves, but you take no note?” (Is 58:3) The answer of God is very instructive: “Is this the manner of fasting I would choose, a day to afflict oneself? To bow one’s head like a reed, and lie upon sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking off every yoke? Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own flesh?” (Is 58:5-7)
The essence of Christian fasting in not only to suffer the pangs of hunger but to be open to others. We fast, which means we deny ourselves, so that we can be more sensitive to the situation of others. Hence fasting is related to works of justice and works of charity. We redress wrongs and go out of our way to help those in need. The discipline of fasting means that we control ourselves so that our attention is no longer fixed on ourselves and our wants, but we see more the others in their difficulties. Thus, what we are able to save by denying ourselves we give to assuage the needs of others. We voluntarily suffer hunger so that we know what it is to be hungry, and thus understand better and are moved to help the many others whose circumstances force them to go without food.
Fasting for us Christians then means solidarity with Jesus who suffered for us and solidarity with the poor who are unjustly deprived. Thus it opens us to Jesus and to our brothers and sisters. Penance then is very much connected to prayer and almsgiving.