Lent is here! For many, panic ensues on what one should be giving up for Lent. Chocolates? Facebook? Alcohol? Frequently, I have come up with my fast the day of Ash Wednesday as I am walking up to receive ashes on my forehead. For many years I only associated Lent with fasting. Fasting, to me, was just this forty days once a year of not being able to eat what I want. Yet, when I read the Church Fathers, St. Benedict, Scripture, or any spiritual work, fasting comes up often. It seems as if — in the American culture at least — the practice of fasting has fallen off of our radar. From reading the works mentioned above, it seems to be an important aspect of the spiritual life.
Jesus and Fasting
I will use examples from Christ’s own life by referring to two times he taught on fasting and one instance where he showed what fasting means. The first Sunday of Lent we hear from Matthew 4:1-11 the account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert after His baptism. We hear that Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights and that he was hungry. The doubt arises for some that because he is God, that he would not have been actually hungry. But, knowing that Christ is both fully divine and fully human but one person (two “what’s”= natures; one “who”= person), Jesus could have actually had hunger. With that established, let us look deeper into this passage.
Adam and Eve fell through sin. If one has attended any type of Catholic schooling, CCD, Sunday School, or has listened in Mass a few times a year will probably not be surprised by this fact. What was the sin, though? We read that the devil convinces Eve that she will not die by eating the fruit but rather become like God (Genesis 3:5). The devil has convinced Eve not only to disobey God but convinced her to distrust that God knew what was best. The devil approached Adam and Eve to tempt them, just as he approaches us now. In the Gospel, Christ, the New Adam, approached the devil. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, “The devil would not have dared to approach to tempt Christ unless Christ had first approached him,” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew 1-12, Chapter 4 Lecture 1).
Jesus met all of our temptations head on to show us what it takes to overcome these temptations. Jesus confronted the devil, and won! Jesus is our protection, we should not try to meet the devil head on ourselves (remember he is an angel by nature) but rather lean on Christ. What was the first act of Jesus after Baptism? Jesus fasted. We too should emulate what Christ does because he is our example and he already conquered the devil for us.
Jesus speaks of fasting in his Sermon on the Mount: “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men” (Matthew 6:16; emphasis added). Jesus does not say “if one fasts,” but “when one fasts.” It is an expectation that the followers of Christ fast. Saint Thomas Aquinas comments, “Fittingly enough after prayer he treats of fasting, for prayer is thin when not accompanied by fasting” (Commentary, Chapter 6, Lecture 3). Fasting, denying oneself a bodily good, can make the mind more attune with the will of God because the distractions of wants are cast aside and one can now give full attention to God.
Jesus, then, in his final act before his resurrection, showed what good fasting can do. After the Last Supper, Jesus did not eat anything or drink anything until his last breath where he took a sip of wine. During the time before he was arrested, he went to the Garden of Gethsemane where he prayed and fasted. Not only did he pray and fast but he had the community of his friends along with him doing the same thing (until they fall asleep, of course). “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).
We see what Jesus meant when we look further down the storyline when the Apostles leave Christ after his arrest. It is seen when Peter denied Christ three times. It is seen when no one was at the crucifixion of Christ except John and Mary. Prayer and fasting strengthen the spiritual life. It prepares man for the spiritual battle he will face. Jesus was strong enough to endure the greatest suffering, he went through this not only to redeem us but show us the road to salvation. To walk in his footsteps up Calvary, down into his grave, and be lifted up to heaven.
St. Benedict of Nursia and Fasting
In the Rule of St. Benedict, St. Benedict gives what he calls “Tools for Good Works.” The first tool he gives is the greatest commandment, “Love the Lord God with your whole heart, your whole soul, and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself” (cf. Mark 12:30-31). He follows this with the Ten Commandments; immediately after this, he adds, “Renounce yourself in order to follow Christ [cf. Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23]; discipline your body [cf. 1 Corinthians 9:27]; do not pamper yourself, but love fasting” (Rule of St. Benedict 4.10-13).
St. Benedict further speaks of fasting when he is instructing how much food a monk should have, and this shows why he thinks fasting is so important, “For nothing is so inconsistent with the life of any Christian as overindulgence” (Rule 39.8). He emphasizes fasting since it opens up our eyes to what is really going on. It raises awareness of the spiritual battle happening, which allows us to take our temptations to Christ: “dash them against Christ and disclose them to your spiritual father,” (Rule 4.50).
Opening our inner room for the Holy Spirit to dwell allows Christ to fight for us against the devil. An old practice was to say the Jesus prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner) again and again for when one just had a temptation so that Christ could come in and vanquish our foe for us. In fasting we can do as St. Benedict instructs, “And finally never lose hope in God’s mercy” (Rule 4.74).
Other Early Church Leaders On Fasting
Tertullian, in the first chapter of his work On Fasting, explains how we can see how man’s appetites are ordered by the way the body is set up: “First, the belly; and then immediately the materials of all other species of lasciviousness are laid subordinately to daintiness.” This then leads to his conclusion, “Through love of eating, love of impurity finds passage.” We see here Tertullian pointing to a specific and practical application of fasting.
As we all know, sex sells. Pornography is everywhere. It is on the internet, in movies, and billboards. If someone has a struggle with lust, no matter how severe, fasting is a way to help curb lust. Tertullian points out in Chapter 3 that fasting has been there for Man even before the Fall. God calls Adam and Eve to not eat of the fruit of the tree. To fast from eating that specific fruit. Adam could have any other piece of fruit, just not that specific one. God only called Adam to fast from one thing. Fasting from some food to ultimately get to participate in the divine life is not a big price to pay.
The Didache, the earliest Church document we have outside of Acts of the Apostles, mentions fasting as well. In Chapter 1 Paragraph 3 we read, “Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you.”Immediately after in Paragraph 4 it reads, “Abstain from fleshly and bodily lusts.” In Chapter 7 Paragraph 4 we read, “But before Baptism let the baptizer and the baptized fast, and any others who can; but thou shalt command the baptized to fast for one or two days before.”
The first example shows us that prayer always goes with fasting; then we are given not just a bodily fast but a spiritual one as well! In the last instance, we can reason that if we fast before Baptism, then we should fast after we commit a sin and before we go to confession seeing that confession renews the relationship between us and God.
Finally, we will look at the Acts of the Apostles. First, “While they [Ss. Barnabas and Paul and the church at Antioch] were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying [the Antiochians] laid their hands on them and sent them” (Acts 13:2-3). Before Paul and Barnabas went on their mission, they fasted and prayed. Later, we read that after a mission in Lystra and Iconium that they prayed and fasted before picking elders for the churches that were established (Acts 14:21-23).
Sign Me Up
The evidence is overwhelming from these few examples that fasting is an integral part of the Christian life. “That is fine and dandy,” one may say, “but how can I do it in the modern world?” Let us look to the Church as our guide.
We see that there are not only spiritual benefits to fasting but that we are called to do this by Christ and the early Church. But what about now? Do we still do this? In the Code of Canon Law 1249-1253, we get the answer. Canon 1249 states that there are days of the year that are specifically set aside for fasting and abstinence. Pay attention to this one: “The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent” (CIC 1250). This means that every single Friday of the year we are supposed to be fasting or doing some kind of penance! Canon 1251 states that abstinence and fasting occur together on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. We could even, of our own free will, do what the Didache says by fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays (op. cit., ch. 8.1).
This is a very practical but easy way to fast. A person does not have to refrain from eating anything at all (which is the connotation at times) but rather, as Tertullian points out, that St. Paul repudiates those who “enjoin perpetual abstinence to the extent of destroying and despising the works of the Creator” (On Fasting 15; cf. 1 Timothy 4:1-3). Do not fast to the point of actually harming yourself. This is to give glory to God, not harm yourself.
For a modern and practical application, you can start this Lenten season, start with fasting from snacks during the day. It can actually be very difficult at first but drink water instead and as you feel the hunger coming; offer it for a soul who has no one to pray for them. Even pray for a soul who is in desperate need of conversion. There are plenty of souls who need our prayers!
Starting to fast prayerfully for the first time in my life has changed my spiritual life for the better. It has done wonders for both me individually and my own marriage. I have encouraged my own students to fast in this way as well. Take advantage of the graces that are waiting for followers of Christ through fasting!