First Meditation: On fasting
Fasting is recommended to us in both the Old and New Testaments and by the example of Christ and of his Saints. (Joel 2; Jonas 3) We learn that all who follow Christ are to fast and, moreover, that the devil will not leave us except by prayer and fasting. (Matthew 9:15; Mark 9:28) It is made clear that, while we fell from God originally by succumbing to temptations, we return to him by fasting. The gratifying of our sensual appetites most often betrays us both in our flesh and our happiness. It is well known that the unbridled In the discipline of fasting, we overcome them both. In other words, fasting for a Christian is never out of fashion.
However, fasting is often just because we want to look or feel better, but fasting for God is much more than that. It strengthens not just body and mind, in which we are always in need, but pleases the Holy Spirit since the reason for our fasting is a desire to please God. A desire which, when acted upon, cleans up the soul – that palace where God lives in us. (St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle)
There are three great advantages found in fasting. First, we know from Holy Scripture that it appeases God, because by such fasting we acknowledge our guilt. Even more, we take part in God’s justice by depriving ourselves. It is not a form of self-punishment, but an act of homage. Nothing sooner moves God to show us mercy than the honour we pay to his justice.
Another great advantage of fasting is that we are enabled by it to overcome unruly desires of our will, such as our pride, ambition, envy, and lust. When performed with a contrite and willing spirit, fasting humbles the soul and, consequently, restrains such desires. Fasting by keeping the flesh and its desires under control obliges us to submit to the leadership of our spirit rather than our sensual and worldly appetites.
The third advantage of fasting is that it makes our spirit lively and vigorous. This sets us at liberty from the restrains, which we put on ourselves by wayward self-will. As the Holy Spirit takes possession of our life and how we live, we find the freedom to rejoice and live in eternal truths about how to live a full and happy life. We are able to turn away from worldly values and goals without fear. We listen carefully to the teachings of Jesus. We become free to love without self-interest.
Conclude then to set great value on fasting for God, but take care that it is accompanied with prayer and the study of Holy Scripture. In this way your fasting will be a true penitence and such as God has chosen for you.
Second Meditation: The rules of fasting
The Church in former times was more rigorous about fasting and abstinence than it is today. However, your compliance with the current rules of the Church will give an added value to your fasting and abstinence by adding to it the virtue of obedience. It is important to remember when you begin your fast that, while it means refraining from eating certain foods, it is essentially a spiritual discipline. It is a way of exercising increased awareness of your body and its appetites in order to concentrate on more spiritual things.
Although fasting and abstinence are related, these are different spiritual practices. When we fast, we restrict the amount of food we eat and, sometimes, when we are to eat it. But abstinence is the avoidance of certain foods, such as not eating meat or chocolate. Food in itself is not impure and is a gift from God. For this reason, we ought to treat it with respect and thanksgiving. When we abstain from a certain food, we are voluntarily giving up something that, while good, leads us to a spiritual benefit, which is a higher good.
Outward observance of our diet during the season of Lent is not enough unless it turns us inward to our inner life and brings us a deeper spiritual awareness. We might reasonably call this inward spirit the very soul of our fast, because such fasting is essentially penitential. This penitential feeling we have when we fast implies a sorrow, a sorrow for having turned for away from a life with Christ. Such feelings lead to a deep yearning for God. Once aware of this desire to respond to his call, we are prepared to renounce ways we know takes us from him. Fasting, performed in this spirit, cannot fail to move God to mercy.
Conclude to follow the rules of the Church for your fasting and abstinence and to better understand the spiritual reasons for them, since they strengthening your life in Christ and facilitate your reconciliation with God. In this way, you will find a refreshed spirit, ready for the glory of the resurrection celebration to come.
Third Meditation: The true fast of a Christian life
The greatest fast of a Christian is to abstain from sin. This fast should be a lifetime one. It obliges all sorts of persons, young and old, sick and healthy, at all times and in all places. To fast in public but still go on in willful sin in private is a mockery. Such mockery makes you a hypocrite—a liar who claims to follow the righteous path of God but does not. Remember how the Pharisees were not the better for their fasting, because they remained corrupted with pride, covetousness, malice, and hypocrisy. Did not God reject the fast of the Jews, because on the days of their fasting they continued to provoke him by their customary sins? (Isaiah 58) If we just pretend to fast we are as guilty and as displeasing to God as these people were in ancient days.
The true purpose of our greatest fast is made clear to us: Let the wicked man forsake his way, and the unjust man his thoughts, and let him return to the Lord, and then he will have mercy upon him. (Isaiah 55) The true Christian fast should not only put a general restraint upon the sensual appetite, in point of eating, but also extend itself to a more general mortification of all the senses by which we are lead to excess. The eyes, the ears, the tongue, and all the rest of ourselves should fast, therefore, from curiosity, sensuality, vanity, carnal pleasures, idle conversations, and other worldly diversions and sensations which are unbecoming to a serious Christian at most times, but more especially so on days of specific fasting as in Lent.
Yet, the enduring fasting from sin we do during our lifetime should be at heart a fast from our own will and self-interest.
Is not this the sort of fast that pleases me, says the Lord: to break unjust fetters, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break all yokes? Is it not sharing your food with the hungry, and sheltering the homeless poor? If you see someone lacking clothes, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own kin? Then your light will blaze out like the dawn and your wounds be quickly healed. Saving justice will go ahead of you and God’s glory come behind you. Then you will cry for help and God will answer; you will call and he will say, ‘I am here.’
Resolve to keep this greatest of all fasts, which so pleases God, by breaking the bonds that hold you in the embrace of unworthy values and worldly aims. Do this by acts of mercy and love to others.
© “Meditations for Lent” by Stafford Whiteaker from “CALLED INTO LIGHT — Meditations with Bishop Challoner for the Christian Year” by Stafford Whiteaker to be published by Gracewing Ltd in late 2021. Permission is granted for quoting from these meditations as long as the source by book title and author is credited. Pre-ordering via www.gracewing.co.uk. (Please note that foreign rights including USA have not yet been finalised. Permission has been granted by the author for this book to be translated into the French language as well as the usual translations given in foreign rights editions.)