In his 18th Century encyclical letter Non ambigimus, Pope Benedict XIV sought to encourage his brother bishops and the Church Universal to zealously keep the Lenten fast. Not only did he view it as a distinguishing mark of Catholic Christianity, but he also lamented that “the most sacred observance of the fast of Lent has been almost completely eliminated.” Certainly the last two and a half centuries have witnessed a continued decline. But if what Pope Benedict XIV says is true, namely that:
“[T]he observance of the Lenten fast is the very badge of the Christian warfare. By it we prove ourselves not to be enemies of the cross of Christ. By it we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. Should mankind grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe.”
Perhaps as we plan out our Lenten practices, we ought to examine the practice of fasting once again.
Fasting has a long history within the Church. We know that Our Lord Himself left us by way of example this practice when He went into the desert and fasted for 40 days. But like all things that Christ did, He left us more than an example. During His time in the desert, He won for us as individuals all the graces attached to fasting. As the only Begotten Son of God, He saw each of your Lenten fasts individually and won for you the specific graces you would need during that Lent. These graces become available to you to the degree that you participate in His fast. Thanks to the work of the Redeemer, fasting becomes not only an act of penance but a positive means of growing in sanctity and arms us for spiritual warfare.
We also know that the followers of Christ were expected to fast. When the disciples of John (Mk 2:18-22) the Baptist ask Jesus why His followers do not fast, He tells them that it isn’t fitting for them to fast while He is with them. This is because John the Baptist and his followers fasted both in anticipation of the coming Messiah and as an act of penance. By offering the new wine of redemption, Our Lord was changing the meaning of fasting. That meaning could only be understood once the Bridegroom had departed from their company. In other words, the new fruits of fasting were only available once Jesus’ redemptive mission was completed. Thus fasting is not only something Christians should do, but there is also a uniquely Christian way to fast.
While I have visited the question of fasting previously and mentioned some of the specific fruits attached to it, I would like to examine some of the reasons why fasting in Lent is so essential. Lent is a time consecrated in a special way to penance and the Church has viewed fasting as the primary means by which this penance is performed. Why fasting? Because as Ss. Basil and Gregory the Great point out, the first sin was one of eating. By breaking the commandment of abstaining from eating a particular thing, our first parents allowed all sin to enter the world. Therefore it is fitting that when we fast through the merits of Christ we are able to undo the effects of that sin in our lives. In other words, just as eating universally led to sin in mankind, abstaining from eating can untie that knot.
But wouldn’t fasting from apples be enough? Why does it include fasting from meat? Again it is tied to man’s sinful nature. By way of concession, God allows man to eat the flesh of animals in His covenant with Noah (Gn 9:1-4) because he needs the animal flesh in order to be strengthened in his fallen state. So by abstaining specifically from meat, it once again is a participation in the fruits of Christ’s redemptive act.
Looking at it from Christ’s redemptive act and from the perspective of undoing some of the effects of the Fall, we can see why it is a powerful spiritual practice. But it has fallen into disuse for many in the Church. In response to this, the Church has done all she could to make it possible to fulfill the necessity of fasting while not imposing burdens beyond what the average Catholic in the 21st Century can handle. But the problem is that the average Catholic in the 21st Century can handle a whole lot less than say the average Catholic in the 13th Century. Given the overall increase in health, shouldn’t it be the exact opposite? What has changed is the mindset. While I am not necessarily advocating extreme fasts over Lent, the remedy to this mindset is to actually embrace the Lenten fast.
There is a tendency to think “I can fast from other things instead” and then we set out to be innovative in our Lenten practice. The problem with this is that there is almost always a lack of humility in doing this because, as St. Francis de Sales says, “we will find that all that comes from ourselves, from our own judgment, choice and election, is esteemed and loved far better than that which come from another.” But by acting in obedience to Our Lord’s example, we choose a penance which is imposed from without. This offers us an opportunity to grow in humility by voluntarily choosing someone else’s conception of penance.
This is not to say that fasting from TV, social media or the like may not be a spiritually fruitful experience. As an aside, we should always fast from that which is good—to avoid something like yelling at your wife, is not fasting. What is being said is that these things should never be substitutes for fasting from food. Do them in addition to fasting, not in place of. Because food is necessary to life, the hunger we experience in going without, is felt at the core of our being. We give up what is necessary because we want the One Thing that is most necessary. Those other things, while good, do not share this same essential quality.
In the past, Christians were under obligation to eat only a single meal each day during the entire Lent. Obviously this would be too difficult for us today. Instead we might consider following the current norms for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday for all the days of Lent. When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal. Two smaller meals also can be eaten, although they should not be larger than the full meal combined. We should also consider abstaining from meat in any of those meals. Fasting and abstinence should not be done on Sunday—even during Lent, Sunday is a feast day rather than a fast day. This connection between fasting and feasting, especially during Lent, will also help us to enjoy the Sabbath day all the more. By fasting throughout Lent, we will realize the fruits of the Easter feast even more. May our Lenten fasts lead to great spiritual renewal for us all!