Through the Word, the Church instructs her children about the true meaning of Lenten penance:
“Why do we fast, but you do not see it? afflict ourselves, but you take no note?” (Is 58:3). Thus, the people of Israel, scrupulous observant of the lawful fast, raised to God their voice, as if it could present rights because of practices of penance devoid of a true spirit of piety! And the voice of God answered, “See, you fast only to quarrel and fight and to strike with a wicked fist! Is this the manner of fasting I would choose, a day to afflict oneself?” (Is 58:4a.5a).
If penance does not lead to inner effort to eliminate sin and to practice virtue, it can not be pleasing to God who desires to be served by a humble, pure and sincere heart. Selfishness and the tendency to self-assert often lead man to place himself in the center of the universe, thus enabling himself to belittle others and thus neglecting the fundamental law which is fraternal love.
“Of which whatever is granted to man for food and drink, is holy and clean after its kind. But if it is taken with immoderate greed, it is the excess that disgraces the eaters and drinkers, not the nature of the food or drink that defiles them” (St. Leo the Great, Sermon 42 – IV. “The perverse turn even their fasting into sin”).
The Hebrews, abstaining from food, lay in sackcloth and ashes, but did not cease to oppress the others, who were severely rebuked. For God, these practices of penance were rejected. There is little or nothing worth imposing on corporeal privations if we do not know how to renounce our own interests to respect and favor those of our neighbors; nor to our own views to support those of others, if we do not seek patiently to bear the insults received.
Sacred Scripture points out that, justly, charity makes acceptable to God the practices of penance. The fast that pleases the Lord “Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear” (Is 58:7-8). Then the “light” of good conscience shines forth before God and man, and the wound of sin is healed by the true love manifested toward God and the brethren.
The disciples of John the Baptist, astonished at those with Jesus for not observing how they fasted, once questioned the Master in this regard. Jesus responds: “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them?” (Mt 9:15). For the Hebrews fasting was a sign of pain, of penance, observed especially in times of calamities, to implore the mercy of God or to express repentance of sins. But now that the Son of God is on earth celebrating his nuptials with humanity, fasting like this seems nonsense: Jesus’ disciples are meant for joy instead of mourning. Christ Himself has come to free you from sin; therefore, their salvation is not so much in bodily penances, but in fully opening themselves to the Savior’s Word and Grace. However, Jesus did not intend to eliminate fasting. On the contrary, He had already taught with what purity of intention they should practice it: fleeing from all manner of ostentation in order to attract the praises of others. “But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Mt 6: 17-18). Then to the disciples of the Baptist, says the Lord: “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.” (Mt 9:15).
Christian fasting is not only a sign of sorrow for the remission of the Lord, but of faith and hope in Him who remains invisible among his friends in the Church, in the Sacraments, in the Word, and will one day return visibly and gloriously. The Christian fast is sign of vigil, but joyful vigil “while we wait for the blessed hope — the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).
Saint Augustine explains this reality well:
“By the help of the merciful Lord our God, the temptations of the world, the snares of the Devil, the suffering of the world, the enticement of the flesh, the surging waves of troubled times, and all corporal and spiritual adversities are to be overcome by almsgiving, fasting, and prayer. These practices ought to glow throughout the entire life of a Christian, but especially as the Paschal solemnity approaches which stirs up our minds by its yearly return, renewing in them the salutary memory that our Lord, the only-begotten Son of God, showed mercy to us and fasted and prayed for us […] what mercy could be greater, so far as we poor wretches are concerned, than that which drew the Creator of the heavens down from heaven, clothed the Maker of the earth with earthly vesture, made Him, who in eternity remains equal to His Father, equal to us in mortality, and imposed on the Lord of the universe the form of a servant, so that He, our Bread, might hunger; that He, our Fulfillment, might thirst; that He, our Strength, might be weakened; that He, our Health, might be injured; that He, our Life, might die?
And all this [He did] to satisfy our hunger, to moisten our dryness, to soothe our infirmity, to wipe out our iniquity, to enkindle our charity. What greater mercy could there be than that the Creator be created, the Ruler be served, the Redeemer be sold, the Exalted be humbled and the Reviver be killed? In a word, let our soul bless Him who becomes a propitiation for all its iniquities, who heals all its diseases, who redeems its life from corruption, who crowns it in mercy and pity, who satisfies its desires in blessings. Let us give alms the more generously and the more frequently in proportion as the day draws nearer on which the supreme almsgiving accomplished for us is celebrated. Fasting without mercy is worthless to him who fasts.” (St. Augustine – Lent Sermon 207, 1)
Fasting, like any other form of bodily penance, has the purpose of achieving a deeper detachment from earthly satisfactions, to make the heart freer and able to savor the joys of God and, therefore, the eternal joy of the Lord’s Resurrection.
Let us walk in this certainty!
Shalom Training School
Translation: Jhoanna Climacosa