Ask the Cardinal: The Lenten Penitential Practice of Fasting

Why does the Church say that we ought to give up something for Lent, including abstaining from meat on Fridays and fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday?

In his Letter to the Romans which we heard at Mass last Sunday, Saint Paul urges us to live not according to the flesh, with a concern for worldly things, but according to the Spirit, in which we find true life.  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. Fasting from food for a certain time or giving up other things or activities invites us to focus on the spiritual dimension of our existence and thereby “acquire freedom of heart and mastery over our instincts” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2043).

In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with enjoying a good meal with a nice juicy steak.  To be sure, we celebrate Thanksgiving and solemnities in the Church with a feast.  But the Gospel speaks about a sense of detachment from worldly desires and having a longing instead for the bread of life and the living water that quenches all thirst (John 4:14, 6:35-58).  Fasting helps to teach us the virtues of detachment and temperance and the beatitude of spiritual poverty.

Life is often spoken of as a journey.  If we seek a happy life, it is important to know where we want to go and how to get there, rather than wandering aimlessly.  Fewer things are more frustrating than to get lost or find ourselves on the wrong road.  For this reason there are maps, traffic signs and rules of the road, which are not meant to constrain us or make travel more difficult, but to help us get to our destination.

The same is true of the Lenten season and the various penitential practices that the Church commends to us, including fasting, almsgiving and prayer.  We may be tempted to find the emphasis on penance, conversion and the need personally to take up the cross to be negative and burdensome.  After all, we talk about depriving ourselves and “giving up” things. Yet quite the contrary is true.  The perennial Lenten practices of fasting, almsgiving and prayer are not meant to be burdens along the way, but helpful traveling aids for getting our bearings, turning in the right direction and traveling on the right road so that we arrive at our heavenly goal.

The message of Christ is to follow him.  He is the way.  Through penances, little self-disciplines and self-denial, we turn our lives around to accompany Jesus in his temptations in the desert, his compassion for the poor, and ultimately in his suffering for our sins on the cross, by which he conquers sin and death and transforms them into healing, forgiveness and eternal life.

Since it is intended to foster conversion and a more holy life, traditionally fasting has been closely linked to almsgiving.  As Saint Gregory the Great taught, when it is simply about giving up something without giving away something, we are fasting to please ourselves, not God.  Rather, we make a fast holy “by other good things being added to it. The abstinent are to be admonished that they offer to God an abstinence that pleases Him when they bestow on the indigent the nourishment which they withhold from themselves” (Pastoral Rule, III, 19; see also Isaiah 58:6-12).  Thus, we are encouraged to give to charities, to donate to food banks and find other ways to help those in need.

The option is ours.  Lent can be either an obligation or an opportunity.  As we go into Holy Week, this time can be just one more burden that we must endure with all of its seeming negative overtones – or it can be a blessed time to gain something, to find that better way to take so as to share in the new life of the Risen Christ.