The spiritual discipline of fasting — choosing to obstain from certain foods, or even all food for a time in order to pray and restore order to physical passions and desires — have always been a part of Christian tradition. During the season of Lent we engage in fasting and abstinence (refusing certain luxuries such as meat) both as a sign of penitence and as a way to deepen our prayer lives. The rumbling in our tummies reminds us of our utter dependence on God for all we have, and makes us grateful for His providence.
These practices aren’t always understood, even by other Christians. Years ago I was visiting a friend’s church and felt like smacking the teacher for his prayer-in-a-sermon, for “those who are going to hell because they think eating fish sticks on Fridays will get them into heaven.” (Ah, yes, empty-headed mockery is a much BETTER qualification!)
In reality, eating fish sticks on Friday or any other day won’t get you any closer to the Pearly Gates (unless you happen to choke on one in a state of grace). However, by eating more simply (and donating the money saved to those who have less) we give ourselves an opportunity to identify with the poor and teach ourselves to detach from unnecessary luxuries. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” said Jesus, “for theirs is the Kingdom of God” (Mt 5:3).
In today’s first reading, from the Book of Isaiah (58:1-9), the prophet teaches us the difference between a “good” and “bad” fast — one that is beneficial to the spirit, and the other that leaves us with nothing but a growling stomach and sour disposition.
“Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits,
and drive all your laborers.
Yes, your fast ends in quarreling and fighting,
striking with wicked claw.
Would that today you might fast
so as to make your voice heard on high!
Is this the manner of fasting I wish,
of keeping a day of penance:
That a man bow his head like a reed
and lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?
This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed …”