Towards More Mature Fasting

(Is 58:1-9; Ps 51; Mt 9:14-15)


Does it strike you as rather curious that on this Friday after Ash Wednesday, when the gospel was all about the three disciplines of Lent – prayer, almsgiving and fasting – Matthew has Jesus explaining to the Pharisees why he and his disciples were not fasting as they did? (“The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?”).

There is an invitation in this passage to grow towards a more nuanced, mature, deeper kind of fasting, a fasting that transforms us.

For a start, these three disciplines are practical ways to live out the commandments Jesus gave us – to love God with our whole being, and then to love others as we love ourselves. Prayer is all about loving God; almsgiving is all about loving others, and fasting is actually all about learning to love ourselves. A first way we might fast could be fasting from self-criticism and self-loathing. It might be to accept ourselves as we are, to see ourselves as beloved children of God, to forgive ourselves our past mistakes, and to accept compliments more readily and sincerely.

Along the line of learning to love ourselves, the Gospel reminds us of achieving a balance between asceticism and celebration, when it is good to fast, and when it might be more appropriate to celebrate. The disciples could not fast when Jesus was with them. Jesus and his disciples did not fast because that is the wrong kind of fasting! Then Jesus introduces a favorite theme and metaphor that he gradually develops – life as a wedding banquet, with himself as the bridegroom and humanity as the bride. Jesus is not interested in an elite (the Pharisees) who do their rituals properly yet refused to join the wedding feast that God is preparing for all, both insiders and outsiders.

Ron Rolheiser OMI shares an incident about a group of social justice advocates in Belgium at a conference who went out for a supper of fine dining as a break from days of intense work strategizing on how to overcome poverty and homelessness. One participant was scandalized and refused to go in, because they were advocates for the poor. But sitting alone in the bus, he realized that if Jesus was there, he would probably be with the others, enjoying a well-deserved banquet. He underwent a conversion in his attitude towards poverty and finally joined the group. Jesus can also be found at times among friends and colleagues who are celebrating their ministry with good food and fine wine, being renewed and refreshed to once again tackle the hard issues of the day.

Psalm 51 and Isaiah than invite us to move towards another profound way of fasting – to repent and receive forgiveness for our sins, and pray for healing of our sinfulness, that which makes us sin. Isaiah mentions things like hypocrisy, false pride, selfishness, rudeness, being unfair to and taking advantage of workers and other external rituals that do not touch the heart. These injustices are happening every day all around us, sometimes in very subtle, corrupt and systemic ways, crying out for whistleblowers who have the courage to unmask them.

The psalmist then invites us to turn to God’s mercy and steadfast love that will “blot out” our transgressions (forgiveness) and “wash and cleanse” us of our iniquity (healing). That is the role of the Messiah, to redeem and sanctify, to forgive and heal. Our fasting during this Lent should include a sincere examination of conscience (searching and fearless moral inventory), confession of our sins to receive the forgiveness that awaits us, and also prayer for healing of our painful emotions and deeply rooted negative attitudes that cause us to sin by acting out in harmful ways.

Isaiah then pushes religion (and fasting) away from externalism towards justice as an expression of genuine charity: the corporal works of mercy.

Richard Rohr claims Isaiah says explicitly God prefers another kind of fasting which changes our actual lifestyle and not just punishes our body. He makes a very upfront demand for social justice, non-aggression, taking our feet off the necks of the oppressed, sharing our bread with the hungry, clothing the naked, letting go of our sense of entitlement, malicious speech, and sheltering the homeless. This is clearly the fast that God wants.

Bishop Robert Barron adds another dimension to fasting with the question – why do we fast? Because we have a hunger for God, which is the deepest hunger. We’re meant to get access to that hunger. We’re meant to feel it so that it can direct us toward God. Every spiritual master recognizes the danger that if we allow the superficial hunger of our lives (an over-attachment to possessions, prestige, power and pleasure) to dominate, we never reach the deepest hunger.

Thomas Merton once observed that our desires for food and drink are something like little children in their persistence and tendency to dominate. Unless and until they are disciplined, they will skew the functions of the soul according to their purposes.

And fasting is a way of disciplining the hunger for food and drink. It is a way of quieting those desires by not responding to them immediately, so that the deepest desires emerge. Unless we fast, we might never realize how hungry we are for God.

Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement, is one who, once she met Jesus through the gospel and a few solid witnesses to the faith, fell in love with the social teachings of the Church, and radically lived what Isaiah is sharing with us today. She found Jesus in the poor she served so well and effectively, sometimes disturbing the upper echelons of the Church in her area. She was one who comforted the disturbed, and disturbed the comfortable, as did Jesus.

The Eucharist brings all these teachings together. We fast from food for an hour before celebrating, then we receive God’s forgiveness through the penitential rite and the liturgy of the Word. And we are healed in the depths of our being as we commune with the very body and blood of Jesus.

May our celebration empower us to move from externalism in fasting, to that deep inner transformation of our thoughts, emotions, attitudes and actions, that we might live out the kind of fasting both Isaiah and Jesus are teaching in these readings.

Updated: February 16, 2024 — 5:01 am

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