Fasting during Lent is so much a part of our Catholic culture that many of us step into it without much thought.  This year I plan to be much more intentional about the Lenten journey.  Why do we fast?  What does it accomplish?  And why is it called a FAST?

The word has always intrigued me: why would refusing to eat or drink for religious purposes (a fast) be the same word as moving quickly (running fast) or a promiscuous undisciplined person (loose and fast) or a meal that’s cheap and quick (fast food)?  Language experts believe the definition comes from Old English fæst meaning “firmly fixed, steadfast, constant; secure; enclosed, watertight; strong, fortified.”  As in: They tied a fast knot, the ship held fast against the storm, or she was a fast and true friend. It probably has roots in German or Dutch words that sound similar.  The assumption is that we use that word in English because fasting is known to make us steadfast, constant, strong, and fortified against sin and evil.

 Jesus teaches in Matthew Chapters 5 and 6 about the right way to give alms, the right way to pray, and the right way to fast.  These are the three major disciplines of Israel, and likewise the disciplines of Christians, especially in Lent.  Lent likewise is a word that comes to us through Old English from a German word lenz or lenzin meaning “spring time.”

Jesus says “WHEN you give alms… WHEN you pray… WHEN you fast…”  He does not say IF.  It is expected that the people of God will practice these three disciplines.

The Bible mentions fasting more than 70 times.  The Old Testament commanded fasting on the Day of Atonement for Israel.  During the Exile, while the Israelites were held in captivity, they expanded the practice of fasting.  Fasting is associated with praying for discernment, spiritual strengthening, and making holy decisions.  Moses fasted before receiving the Ten Commandments.  The people fasted in mourning after the death of King Saul and Jonathan.  The prophet Daniel prayed and fasted.  Jesus fasted for 40 days preparing for the mission ahead.  John the Baptist and his disciples fasted.  Jesus said some demons only respond to prayer and fasting.  The earliest Christian leaders of Antioch fasted and prayed when making the decision to elect Paul and Barnabas for a missionary journey.  Paul and Barnabas fasted and prayed when appointing the priests of the newly founded Christian communities.

Most of us understand the basic value of fasting from chocolate or ice cream: we tend towards gluttony and a little self-control is a great thing.  But why do we fast from necessary things like food and water?  How does denying essential food and drink help us to be steadfast and strong?  We’ve heard that fasting from food and drink is a true sacrifice, so is that saying Catholics enjoy suffering?  Do we deny sustenance because we sadistically impose pain upon ourselves?

 No!  The whole goal of our spiritual journey is to unite our will to God’s Will; in order to reach this saintly level of self-denial we need many years of practice.  Fasting is a stellar training ground for holiness!  Fasting is exercising our spiritual muscle of selflessness, self-control, moderation, and humility.  Fasting teaches us to strengthen our WILL over our desires.  (If we don’t have enough willpower to resist a favorite food or drink, how will we ever have the willpower to deny something challenging?)

What else does fasting do?  We are in solidarity with others who have no food because of their circumstances.  We remember the hungry in prayer with every hunger pang we experience.  Every time we thirst for a drink, we remember how much our souls are thirsting for God.  Fasting helps to intensify prayer; we are needy and poor in spirit while God is rich in spirit.  Fasting teaches us how to let go of our attachments and addictions, disciplining our desires towards little things we crave and working our way up to real addictions.  Going without food can hurt… so it unites us to the suffering of Jesus and teaches us how to suffer rightly.  When we fast, mystically we feed our faith rather than feed our flesh.  Fasting makes us appreciate the things we go without and then return to them.  Dieticians and doctors have said for years that a limited amount of fasting is actually healthy for the body.

We can be creative with our fasting, building those muscles of self-control.  We can fast from our phones or electronics, from social media, from coffee, all meat, all solid food, all sweets, snacking between meals, or from behaviors like gossip, over-exaggeration, swearing, complaining, going first, over-sleeping, and the list goes on!  But there is real spiritual power in fasting specifically from food; connected to eating of the Lord’s Body and refusing to eat of worldly things.  I find a bread and water fast doesn’t feel like any sort of denial; I love bread!!  So typically, my fasting is to refrain from bread and carbs… eating only natural simple foods like fruits, veggies, and nuts. 

I’m praying for our whole parish family to strengthen themselves spiritually this Lent; may your fasting produce in you a deep hunger for God and the virtues you need for your adventure toward heaven!