As Catholics, we have built into our devotional lives certain periods of special prayer and practices such as fasting, almsgiving and service. It all begins, of course, with prayer, with our personal, active, living raising of heart and mind to God. But here we mean more than a quick formal prayer to start the day – we mean an entire life of prayer. After all, every good thing comes from God and if we do not involve him in our practices, we can miss the point. So, as part of our various devotional practices, we should find time for prayer.
Many people fast, but if we do not include God in prayer, then it could become simply a dietary practice to lose weight. A trimmer waistline might be nice, but that is not the reason that a Christian fasts. We fast as a form of prayer so that we can progress to greater love.
In a special way, we fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and on both those days and the other Fridays of Lent, we are obliged to abstain from meat also. It is tradition as well to give up something else we would ordinarily enjoy during Lent, for example, sweets, television, or social media. The other Fridays of the year, we are asked to either abstain from meat or practice some other form of self-denial, penance, charity or pious practice.
In the early centuries of the Church, Christians fasted every Wednesday and every Friday, and for longer stretches in preparation for Easter and other times. Fasting is a devotion as ancient as the Old Testament, where it was taken up by prophets and kings. But as Jesus made clear, fasting and self-denial are an important part of the Gospel as well, and they are an essential habit of any soul who would draw close to Christ and imitate him.
The practice of fasting is a way to grow in humility and acknowledge one’s sins; and it can be a part of intercessory prayer for the good of another or a part of worship. Jesus, of course, sanctified the practice by his forty-day fast in the wilderness in preparation for his public ministry.
In addition to other reasons, the practices of fast and abstinence are always expressions of hope and expectation. To fast and deny oneself is to prepare for some great event. We give something up to purify ourselves of those things in order to receive something better. When we fast and detach ourselves from other worldly desires and goods, clearing away the clutter in our life, we are making room for God.
We can even make an extra effort to give up things like impatience and complaining – which, admittedly, we might give into a bit too much. Traditionally, in the face of the small daily annoyances and frustrations that come our way, the faithful have been encouraged to “offer it up” as a way to share in a small way in Christ’s Passion (see Spe Salvi, 40).
Another constant theme in scripture is the practice of almsgiving, as well as personal service. They are, in fact, presented as an essential part of prayer. This is the life the Apostles learned from Jesus, who identified personally with the lowliest and neediest: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
The Lord assumed we would give alms. But he expects us to share more than we can give by writing a check. Make no mistake, to provide monetarily for those in material need is very praiseworthy, but it can be impersonal and, in any event, it is not by bread alone that we live (cf. Matthew 4:4). It is love – the personal act of self-giving – that Jesus asks of us. “This love does not simply offer people material help, but refreshment and care for their souls, something which often is even more necessary than material support,” explained Pope Benedict XVI (Deus Caritas Est, 28).
Pope Francis often speaks of going out to others and truly meeting them. “The important thing,” he says, “is not looking at them from afar, or helping from afar. No, no! It is going to encounter them. This is the Christian! This is what Jesus taught: to go meet the most needy.” Just as Jesus got down on his hands and knees to wash the feet of his disciples, so too are we called to touch in a real and tangible way the poor, the sick, the neighbor who is in difficulty.
During this season of Lent, as preparation and prelude to new life in the Risen Lord, we should want to purify ourselves and conduct ourselves in a way worthy of the Gospel of Christ (Philippians 1:27). Through prayer, fasting, almsgiving and personal service to others, we begin the conversion and transformation of our lives, which is completed by the Cross and Resurrection.
This blog post includes excerpts from my book, Ways to Pray: Growing Closer to God.