Why is it on days that I’m fasting, all I can do is think about food? It doesn’t help matters either when all the billboards are for restaurants, all the TV commercials for fast-food, and my list of errands includes a trip to the grocery store.
Despite all the temptation, I fast anyway.
Since Christ warns us about making a show of our fasting: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting,” (Mt 6:16) whenever I fast, I’ll quietly tell my wife and son, so that they will be respectful and understanding, but I don’t go around with a sign around my neck that says: Do not feed the Catholic. Because of this, there is usually some point in the day when I need to politely explain that I’m fasting to someone’s generous insistence that I eat.
To the outsider, fasting can be one of the most perplexing Catholic practices. Making the conscious decision to go without food, especially in our consumption-geared society, seems to go against the natural order. Although Catholics can, and will, fast for any number of reasons throughout the year, this penitential practice comes to the fore yearly during the season of Lent.
So this raises the question: Why do Catholics fast?
The short answer is to be Christ-like.
In everything we do, Christians are called to imitate Christ. Whether it is to love our neighbours, our enemies, to pick up our Cross, or to forgive others; we are asked to follow Christ’s lead, as difficult and impossible as it might seem. Thus, during the 40 days of Lent, we are called to mirror Christ’s 40 days in the desert, in fasting and prayer.
Then Jesus was lead by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, and afterwards he was hungry. (Mt 4:11)
One would think that Catholics are being called to an impossible task to be Christ-like during Lent, and to go 40 days without eating anything (though I think I’ve built up enough reserve around my midriff that I just might make it). Fortunately, the rules on fasting don’t go to quite this extreme. Although the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops does not give specific guidelines on fasting (calling for only a reduction in quantity and richness of food eaten on their website), the general rule of thumb is one full meal per day, with two smaller meals, which when combined, do not exceed amount the one full meal. Really, this isn’t out of the ordinary for most of us. The part I have the most difficulty with is the no snacking allowed!
So, outside of the imitation of Christ in the desert, one must ask again: Why do Catholics fast?
Over the years, I have found the rationale for fasting to be three-fold:
Lent is a time of becoming attuned to our sinfulness so that we can seek God’s forgiveness and mercy. Gluttony is a sin that I, like much of our consumerist society, grapple with on a daily basis. It’s not that we aren’t supposed to enjoy the delicious beauty of God’s creation, it’s just the copious amounts in which we enjoy it. The hunger pangs I feel throughout the day, especially at the times when I would normally reach for a (not-so) small snack, remind me of my inclination to sin, and to call on the Holy Spirit to push through the moment of minimal temptation.
Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the three pillars of Lent, and all three are interdependent. Fasting calls us to a more attentive prayer. When I fast before Mass or Adoration, I am reminded that “Man does not live by bread alone” (Mt 4:4), and I hunger for the Lord in the Eucharist. When I am fasting, and have gotten over the hurdle of fixating on food, this leaves me more time and ability to concentrate on prayer. Finally, as I move through the day and hunger strikes between meals, I use it as a reminder to say a quick prayer: Jesus, I trust in you! or Have mercy on me, a sinner! or Lord, I hunger for you! or There is no virtue without temptation! (St. Augustine) or however the Holy Spirit moves me.
Let’s face it… Most of us living in Europe or North America have never really known hunger. We may get hungry from time-to-time, but we have never experienced what it is like to be truly hungry. A former student of mine once went on a mission trip to Zimbabwe; he recounted how children would walk for kilometers for the chance at their only meal for the day - a bowl of porridge, and if there wasn’t enough to go around, those at the end of the line would shrug their shoulders and walk home, only to return the next day in hopes of getting there in time for something to eat. Missing your one meal a day… this is true hunger. In the grand scheme of things, two small meals and one regular sized meal is no great sacrifice. Those little hunger pangs I feel throughout the day are a reminder of the truly blessed life I lead, and that I need to do more to help those who are less fortunate.
Catholics are called to truly fast only 2 days a year: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Traditionally, Catholics have practiced fasting and abstinence (not eating meat) on Fridays throughout Lent, and for many, this is a practice on Fridays throughout the rest of the year. If we were to go back to the Early Church, in the formative years of the Church Fathers, the practice was to fast on both Wednesdays (when Judas took it into his heart to betray Jesus) and Fridays (when Jesus died on the Cross).
No matter if one choses to fast on only the two required days, during Lent, throughout the year, or even to add days of fasting and abstinence for various reasons. We need to remember that fasting is not simply a Catholic weight loss program, but a sacred practice calling us to penance, prayer and thanksgiving.