Lent brings us face to face, once again, with the time-honored practice of “giving up” something for the 40 days that lead to the Church’s great celebration of our redemption in the passion, death and Resurrection of Jesus. Almost intuitively, we recognize our need for some sacrifice, some spiritual discipline in a world and life that moves so rapidly that we are tempted, too often, to forget our relationship to God. Lent is the special time of the year that reminds us that it is not by bread alone that we live. Each of us is much more than just our physical body in its material world. We recognize that there is a whole spiritual dimension to life. We know that the things of this world will never fully satisfy the deepest yearnings of our heart. Lent simply recognizes this truth. It also provides us space – a time – dedicated to focusing just a little more clearly on our relationship to God.
The liturgies for Lent remind us of the three elements that are characteristics of this period that highlights our turning – our conversion – to God. These practices are described as prayer, fasting and almsgiving. All three have their own special challenge. In Lent we should try to find a little more time to talk to God – prayer. So should we demonstrate our solidarity with those in need – almsgiving. Today, however, I want to concentrate on fasting.
Mortification that takes the form of denying ourselves some form of food or drink is one of the oldest spiritual practices of our faith. Jesus fasted. We read in the Gospel chosen for the First Sunday of Lent that, before Jesus began his public ministry, he went into the desert for a period of prayer and fasting, and there he was tempted by the devil (Lk 4:1-13). Paradoxically in this time of trial, fasting actually strengthened Jesus because he was nourished instead with the word of God in prayer. This enabled him to open himself more fully to his Father’s will and show us how to do the same. He set us an example as we struggle to avoid sin, the occasion of sin, and the temptation to sin. We, too, can be strengthened in the Christian way of life through fasting.
As we consider what we might “give up” for Lent, what fast we will practice, we should ask what fruit will come of it. If we are fasting from TV, will that offer us a little more time for prayer or more time with others in conversation and shared activity? If we are fasting from food or a favorite beverage, can we take the money saved and give, for example, to Operation Rice Bowl or the local food bank? If we are fasting in a way that is to help break a bad habit, we can take a few minutes at the end of each day to thank God for the difference fasting makes. Our fast should bear fruit in some virtue – even if it is a small one.
But, today, while we are talking and thinking about fasting, I ask that we consider if we might want to continue fasting even after the Easter season. My brother bishops and I have talked about the need for all of us Catholics to reflect more fully on the place of fasting in our life, both as a personal spiritual discipline and as a public communal marker of our membership in the Church. It has been suggested that we as Catholics return to a more personal commitment to Friday as a day of fast throughout the year as part of a call to prayer and sacrifice for a greater respect for life, strengthening of marriage and family life, and preservation of religious liberty.
Just as the right balance of exercise, sleep and eating creates a healthy rhythm and strengthens our bodies, so too do regular prayer, fasting and almsgiving strengthen our souls. Rather than simply marking off these 40 days of Lent, we are asked to think about this time as the pathway to a new regular practice of the spiritual life.
In an earlier message for Lent, our Holy Father reminded us of the wise words of Saint Peter Chrysologus. He wrote, “Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ears to others, you open God’s ear to yourself” (Sermo 43: PL, 52, 320, 322).
As part of our Lenten prayers, I hope we will take these words to heart and consider making fasting a part of our spiritual life, as well as by showing mercy through almsgiving and other charitable works.