The Lenten Fast
“This kind [of demon] cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.” (Mark 9:29) In these words from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus explains that for effective ministry one must pray and fast. Fasting is one of the pillars of this great season of Lent, the others being prayer and almsgiving. In the early Church, fasting was almost inseparable from prayer; the two went hand-in-hand. Fasting was seen as a way to remind us of our reliance on God, as opposed to a false sense of self-sufficiency.
By fasting, we grow closer to the Lord. Fasting is not a Catholic diet, nor is it something we do to show how spiritually tough we are, we do it so that we may recall how much God loves and cares for us. It gives us a taste of the suffering Jesus endured for our salvation, and ultimately allows us to unite in the prayer, fasting, and sacrifice of Jesus, as the old Lenten Hymn reminds us “for Christ, through whom all things were made, himself has fasted and has prayed.”
Practically, this is what fasting looks like for a Catholic: It is the fourth precept of the Church to “observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church.” For a Catholic, the minimum is to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. If possible, we are to keep the Good Friday fast through Holy Saturday. This means that we could take two small meals (snacks) to keep our strength along with one full meal on these two days. This precept is for all Catholics age 18 to age 59 (of course those with medical conditions are not bound). Along with fasting, Catholics over the age of 14 are required to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year, not just Lenten Fridays (Code of Canon Law, 1251). However, outside the season of Lent, a Catholic in the United States is free to choose an alternate penance on Fridays as opposed the abstinence from meat (Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence, United States Catholic Bishops, 1964). We do this on Fridays to recall, in a special way, the sacrifice of Christ who gave his flesh for our life, we recall his sacrifice by abstaining from the flesh of animals.
Fasting and abstaining from meat are just two of the ways, along with prayer and acts of mercy, by which we are called to grow in our relation to the Lord. In the season of Lent we are also called to other forms of self-denial, to “give up” things for Lent as well as to enter more deeply into prayer and reach out to others. Fasting is a powerful way to grow close to the Lord by self-denial, it also helps us to rely more on the Lord for his grace, and if done right, unites us to the passion of Jesus Christ. Let us fast and pray for peace in our world, justice in our community and for the Kingdom of God to reign in our hearts!
In Christ, Fr. Casey