Every Ash Wednesday around the globe—in lavishly tiled basilicas, in wood planked chapels, in modest oratories with dirt floors, and in carpeted and cushioned suburban parishes—Catholics are called by Christ himself to reflect on the three great activities of Christian discipleship:
“When you pray…”
“When you give alms…”
“When you fast…”
For nearly two thousand years, Catholics have read, re-read, and reflected upon these three passages from the sixth chapter of Matthew. When the Ash Wednesday Mass concludes, the following forty days—all of Lent—is observed within this context.
How many Catholics understand that a normal living of the Christian life is to be composed of a healthy dose of all three? Sure, we’re supposed to pray. Everyone believes that. Giving alms (once we get past the archaic word) is also commonly accepted. In the United States and many other countries, giving to charities and doing service work is considered a normal part of our civic life. Nothing too unusual here.
But fasting? Who fasts? And if we do fast, isn’t it just obedience to some minimal Church norms during Lent? But where does Christ or the Church say that fasting is to be done exclusively during penitential seasons such as Lent? Where does Christ say that it should be so rare and so minimal? And where does he say that it is to be exclusively penitential? Nowhere. Yet for some reason these things are precisely what most of us think. Let’s take another look at what he and his disciples actually said and did when it comes to fasting.
When Jesus was preparing for his public ministry, where did he go and what did he do? He went out into the desert and spent forty days praying and fasting. Was Jesus doing penance? Of course not. He never sinned. He was preparing himself spiritually, seeking closeness to his Father in heaven. So, while doing penance is a very good reason for fasting, Jesus gives us other good reasons to fast.
How important was his fasting in this time of preparation? Consider Matthew 4:1-4: when the devil appeared to Jesus to try to thwart his mission, the very first thing he tried to do was to get Jesus to break his fast! Yes, fasting is that powerful and the devil understood this profoundly.
Later in his ministry, when Jesus’ disciples discovered that certain demons could resist their prayers of deliverance, Jesus informed them that some demons can only be cast out by prayer and fasting (cf. Mt 17:21). Obviously there is a power in fasting that goes beyond prayer alone.
To pray is good. To give alms is good. But fasting is the glue. In striving for holiness, prayer lifts us up. Almsgiving coupled with prayer is a selfless movement of love that powers us higher; but fasting allows us to soar to supernatural heights otherwise unimaginable! This is not because we ourselves are in control, but because fasting is an abandonment of control. It is a radical letting go that, coupled with sacramental confession, allows all barriers to our acceptance of God’s love to be broken.