I love my kids, and I always loved teaching, hard as it was, but I am not sorry to be missing the whining today. “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe we have to have pizza today! Why can’t I just have a hamburger? This is so stupid! The cafeteria should at least serve meat so people have the option to choose. Why does the Church get to tell me what I can and can’t eat? Am I really going to go to hell if I have a little bacon? That’s not fair!” You think I am exaggerating. I am not.
I’m always amazed at how we can sit before a God who was stripped, beaten, and nailed to a cross for us and say that anything is “too much” to ask. Oh, I do it, don’t get me wrong. But when you think about the size of our sacrifice compared to the size of his, it seems rather pathetic to deny him. And yet when it comes to food (and sex), we are decidedly ready to.
Now, I love food. But the Lord drew me to fasting from almost the beginning of my walk with him. I was 15 when I started making significant sacrifices outside of Lent and 17 when I first really fasted–not the unimpressive one-regular-meal-and-two-small-meals rule that most of the world just calls eating, but the kind where you don’t eat for more than 8 hours at a time.1 At first, I was just being obedient to the promptings of the Spirit, but as the years have gone by and the Lord has led me to fast in many and various ways, I’ve begun to see just how much fasting can teach us.
In this world of food television, fast food, and gatherings that always and everywhere center around food, it can be hard to see the point of real fasting. Sure, I can give up chocolate so that I know I’m a good Christian, but what does it actually accomplish? If you’re just doing it because that’s what good Christians do, I would imagine it accomplishes very little. But if you’re submitting in obedience, uniting your sacrifice to Christ’s, or seeking the meaning of the practice, there is so much the Lord has to offer you through the gift of fasting.
- When you fast, you tell the Lord that you love him more than food.
I think this is the most basic level, the first thing we understand about fasting as a child. Every piece of candy we don’t eat, every meal we skip is a love letter to the Lord. Early on, it’s very hard, but gradually we begin to put Christ first so that a snack or even (God help us) a piece of bacon seems nothing compared to Christ.
- Fasting helps to detach you from your psychological dependence on food. I think Americans especially are obsessed with food; we let it rule us. The idea of having enough self-control to skip a snack, let alone a meal, is astounding to us. But when you choose hunger for love of God, you begin to realize that hunger isn’t so bad. After years of fasting, I don’t have to plan my life around food.2 Food is a gift or a detail, never the driving force in my life. There’s great freedom in that.
- Fasting makes eating worshipful. If you’ve ever been really hungry–I mean really hungry–you know that the first bite of stale bagel is rapturous. That whole first meal, really, is the best thing you’ve ever tasted. Far from running from food because the world is evil, fasting teaches us to find God in the good things of creation. And if you fast frequently, you get in the habit of worshiping when you eat.3 Every good food becomes a prayer and soon you see the whole world as sacramental–which, after all, is the point.
- Fasting gives you mastery over your body. More than just helping you to rule your appetite, fasting teaches you to rule your appetites. When you fast, you discipline your body and learn to be its master, not its slave. I don’t know how people can be chaste when they haven’t practiced self-mastery in the arena of food first. If you can learn to deny yourself in what is an actual need, your ability to deny yourself a great desire is strengthened dramatically.
- Fasting unites you to the suffering Christ. I’m not just being flippant when I say “Jesus suffocated to death for you; I think you can handle skipping snack time.” During Lent, we walk with our suffering God through the desert, up the hill, and onto the Cross. When our Lenten journey is more than inconvenient, when it’s actually painful, to a degree, we can offer our hearts to him and learn to love him better. We suffer for love of him, which consoles his bleeding heart and teaches us just how deeply he loves us.
- Fasting teaches you to accept every cross, not just the ones you choose. I once found myself furious because I had been looking forward to lemonade and my table was given tea instead. It took me a minute to realize that I would gladly have chosen to go the whole day without food but I just could not accept not getting a drink that I didn’t even particularly like. For many of us, the great difficulty of our particular cross is that it is chosen for us. The more we learn to take up the crosses of our choosing, the more we learn to embrace the one that is thrust upon us. True fasting makes me decrease and him increase. I learn to rely on his strength at work in me; if he can carry this little cross I made for myself, he can certainly carry the big one he picked out for me.
- Fasting changes your attitude to discomfort. Before I started fasting, hunger was misery, an occasion for whining and self-pity. After years of training, my automatic reaction to hunger is to pray. There are even times when I find myself praising God for the hunger before remembering that I’m not fasting, I just haven’t gotten around to eating. When hunger is prayer, it’s not hard to make pain and exhaustion and other physical discomfort prayer. We adjust our attitudes by surrendering our bodies to God and before long we find that virtue isn’t as hard as it once seemed.
- Fasting teaches you to live in solidarity with the poor. I hear people say “I’m starving” all the time. “No,” I want to shout, “You aren’t!” You know who’s starving? Orphans in Africa and lepers in Calcutta and even, God help us, some people on our streets here at home. But you? You’re barely even hungry. I know the difference, because I’ve tasted that “starving” you throw around. Not starving to death, no, and not by necessity but by choice. It’s not the same and I don’t want to pretend that the hunger I took on is as crippling as the tragedy of poverty and hunger in this world. Still, I’ve felt a hunger so deep that you stop being hungry. When you’ve experienced that type of hunger, it’s hard to be swayed by missing a meal. And it’s easy to ache with love for those who don’t choose starvation. Now I’m not recommending that you starve yourself by any means, but if you’ve been really hungry–even gone 24 hours without food–the word “starving” will come less easily to your lips and aid for the poor will come more readily out of your pocketbook.
- Fasting humbles you. When you’re awkwardly turning down food without telling people why,4 you’re humbled. When you realize how addicted you are to Pop Rocks, you’re humbled. When you’re so hungry you get light-headed and you have to break your fast to honor your body, when your hunger makes you cranky, when you realize just how little control you have over your body or your mind, when you realize how much you take for granted, you’re humbled and humbled and humbled again.
Fasting strengthens your prayer. The testimony of Scripture is clear on this issue: “this kind comes out only by prayer and fasting.” Fasting purifies our intentions and puts force behind our prayers. When you’re fasting for an intention, you’re telling God how much you mean it. This Lent, will you consider adding one sacrifice (food or otherwise) to your list of resolutions specifically for the Holy Father and the conclave that will elect his successor? It doesn’t have to be anything much, but every time you’re tempted, throw up a prayer for our German Shepherd and the man who will step into his large, holy shoes.
Now, there are many people who can’t fast in an extreme way, for whatever reason. If you can’t skip a meal, there are favorite foods you can cut out. If you’ve struggled with an eating disorder, though, your penance will be to eat. For you, dear one, that is penance enough.
For the rest of you, I’d like to challenge you to pray about stepping up your game this Lent. If you’re psychologically dependent on snacks, give them up. If you “need” 3 square meals a day, try cutting back to two on Fridays. Go vegan for Lent or just cut out meat. If you’re being led to something more extreme, I’ll assume you’re working with a spiritual director and don’t need my ideas. I’m only beginning to learn the lessons that I’ve listed above–I’m certainly no expert on fasting or holiness or prayer or really anything at all. But I feel so blessed to have been led to fast and thought I ought to propose to you all that there is more to fasting than just skipping your snack and calling it a day. It’s not too late to up the ante this Lent.
If nothing else, though, you’re looking at one regular meal and two small meals today and Good Friday and abstinence today and every Friday in Lent. The Church in her wisdom has required these minor sacrifices of us; let’s offer them joyfully to the Lord and see what he has to teach us.
This song by Jimmy Needham (love him!) is a beautiful meditation on today’s first reading. Enjoy–and happy Lent, friends! May the Father strengthen you to persevere in your penances; may the Son rejoice in your heart as it suffers with and for him; may the Spirit bring you wisdom and clarity through the sacrifices you make for love of him.
- I’m not going to go into details. I usually don’t talk about fasting in a way that will give people any idea about how I fast, but I think I should today. Just know that I’m healthy and prayed up and that you should discuss anything ridiculous with a spiritual director. [↩]
- If you’re diabetic or hypoglycemic or have struggled with eating disorders, this is not something to aspire to. Be where you are–God loves you just there. [↩]
- Not what you eat, although breaking your fast with the Eucharist can be just incredible. [↩]
- Do try not to tell people why. If you’re telling everybody how hard your fasting is, you might as well just start eating again. That’s the point of today’s Gospel: fasting is between you and God, not you and God and your friends and your frenemies and Facebook…. [↩]