Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Fast (from food) during Lent...

In discussions about how we Catholics should approach Lent, even since I was first aware of the concept, there have been searches for alternatives to a literal interpretation of the "fasting" part of "prayer, fasting, and alms giving."  e.g.  why not "fast" from the radio, or judgment, or television, or the Internet?  why not do something positive instead of fasting?

I'm not here to say that if you do pursue one of those alternatives, you're doing it "wrong," and certainly God accepts and makes use of whatever we have to offer, but here are some reasons to consider incorporating fasting from food as part of your observance.

Being Part of Something Larger Than Ourselves The decline of the Church's influence in the day-to-day lives of the faithful, particularly in matters of sexuality, has been well-documented.

Still, it's interesting to observe that about this time of year, restaurants advertise specials on fish, catering to their Catholic customers, even though the observance of Lenten abstinence is even less defensible on secular grounds than, say, the Church's teaching on contraception.  Churches are more crowded on Ash Wednesday (not a Holy Day of Obligation, and with the "uplifting" message that we are dust and to dust we shall return) than on Holy Days celebrating Mary and the saints.

Sure, maybe there's some novelty to eating something different (and I'll leave aside questions of whether eating out at a seafood restaurant or competing for the most elaborate parish fish fry is truly in the spirit of Lenten observance), but I think it speaks to something else -- we want to belong and be part of this universal Church that stretches around the world and throughout time.

By making fasting from food part of your Lenten observance, we join with the observance of Catholics throughout the world, and the saints who have come before us.  We are reminded that we are part of something larger than ourselves.

Solidarity with the Poor  What I typically eat on the days of "fasting" is still more than the majority of people in the world get to eat on a typical day.  By making do with less food, I am reminded, even if ever so weakly, of the suffering of hunger too many people live with every day.  And this can unlock my heart to the other two aspects of Lent -- prayer and alms giving to relieve them.

Solidarity with Christ's Experience Our Lenten observance echoes Jesus's time in the desert, when He went without food, and then was tempted immediately with food.

Obedience (or Discipleship)  Our Holy Mother Church asks us to fast during Lent, and this is one request most of us can honor without violating our personal integrity.  "Because I said so" isn't always a great reason, but humble obedience to legitimate authority is a muscle I think most of us could stand to develop a bit more.

Constant Reminder  Actual hunger is inescapable.  It is not something we can easily distract ourselves, or that passes, like the urge to engage in some activity.  With hunger as our companion, it is an ever-present reminder of our dependence on God and each other.

I understand the impulse to try to come up with our own novel ways to observe Lent, and this can yield some rich fruit.  But in our search for novelty, let's not forget the wisdom of the Church that has developed over the past 2,000 years.
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