In the Gospel of Matthew we read, “Jesus said to His disciples: ‘be careful not to parade your good deeds before men to attract their notice; By doing this, you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven. So, when you give arms and do not have it trumpeted before you; this is what the hypocrites do in the synagogues, and in the streets to win men’s admiration. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward. But when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right is doing. Your arms giving must be secret, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.
And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues, and at the street corners for people to see them; I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward. But when you pray, go to your private room. And when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.
When you fast do not put on a gloomy look, as the hypocrites do. They pull long faces to let men know they are fasting, I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward. But when you fast put oil on your head, and wash your face, so that no one will know you are fasting except your Father who sees all that is done in secret; and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.”
With the onset of Ash Wednesday, we begin to fast. We begin to abstain from food and drinks for 40 days. These 40 days is the season of Lent. You may have heard a lot of people say, “It’s not about abstinence from food that is important, but it should be abstinence from bad habits and wrong doings. Abstinence from addictions like smoking and drinking.” What is being said here is right! It’s not wrong but at the same time abstinence and fasting from food is also important. Reconciling with your enemies, avoiding bad and sinful habits should not be done only for the 40 days of Lent but should be done throughout the year. We must avoid sins and bad habits in all seasons.
Eating food is not a bad habit, we need food for our sustenance. We need the energy but during the season of Lent, we avoid rich food. We knowingly, purposely and willfully take a decision to avoid meat, fish, sweets and other kind of food that we enjoy. We do this to remind ourselves that we don’t need these pleasures. By avoiding food, we humble ourselves in front of God. We make this sacrifice of food to gain control over our body. This is called Lenten observance. Many a times this is misinterpreted and hence we need to understand the difference between the two.
In the Old Testament we see a number of people fasting, Moses fasted for 40 days without food and drink. Esther fasted for 3 days without food and water. Esther 4:16 – “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day.” This is one type of fasting also known as complete fasting or severe fasting which is without food and drinks including water.
There is another type of fasting where we avoid solid food and we drink at least water. This is called Daniel fasting. Daniel 10: 2 “At that time I, Daniel, had been mourning for three weeks. I had eaten no rich food, no meat or wine had entered my mouth, and I had not anointed myself at all, for the full three weeks.” This is the type of fasting we do during the season of Lent. Daniel fasting means to avoid all pleasurable food and eat only what is needed. We deny our body the pleasure of food. We sacrifice it.
Many a times we demand and plan what we would like to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We enjoy the thought of eating. We gain pleasure while eating these delicious food items. We live to eat and not eat to live. During the season of Lent, we deny ourselves this pleasure. We don’t lose out on anything but instead we gain the grace of controlling our body. We are in control of our body and not the other way around. Spiritual fathers say those who are not able to control their body in food will not be able to control their body in their sexuality.
In Gospel of Luke 5:34, “Jesus said to them, “You cannot make wedding attendants fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” Jesus foresaw the future. He knew they would fast once he was taken away. For example, when someone who is very close to you in your family passes away. During the days you are mourning the death of your beloved one, if there is delicious food in front of you. Somehow during that time, you will not feel like eating. You will not be interested.
Another example could be that if you have heard some bad news or painful news of a family member being seriously ill. You may be worried sick and many a times you don’t feel like eating. You sacrifice the food because something painful has happened. The pain takes over and you let go of food.
Sometimes we sacrifice food to gain something. We unconsciously or consciously begin to form this idea that we can control the situation by sacrificing food and controlling your body. We all know the story of Mahatma Gandhi, how he had a nonviolent approach to over-throwing British rule in India. He worked hard not by fighting with the weapons but by fasting. He was a good role model for fasting. Fasting can have a powerful effect. We see this as India got its independence. Like India, even today there are many countries when ignored, they protest against government and leaders by declaring public fasting.
In Matthew 6:16, “And whenever you fast, do not look somber, like the hypocrites, for they mark their faces to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” The important words here are ‘whenever you fast’ what does that mean? Jesus didn’t say in case you fast but he said ‘whenever you fast.’ It is taken for granted that you will fast. This confirms that fasting is part of Christian life. Fasting is not an option hence the catholic church encourages fasting. We are taught to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Good Friday is a day of abstinence. We abstain from eating meat.
Some people rest or sleep the whole day because we are fasting. This kind of fasting will not help us, it has no benefits. Now-a-days we publicize on social media that we are fasting and we gain sympathy. This will also have no benefit; it will be a waste of time. Instead, when you fast, you skip your lunch or dinner – use that time of your lunch and dinner – to pray. Spend the time in the presence of the Lord. We can also do something constructive in our communities, help people. Do something good instead of doing evil.
Some people diet and call it fasting. Dieting is done to improve the looks of our body. They control their food intake and thus control their body. This at times they call it observance of Lent. Dieting is not the same as observing Lent. We should not substitute Lenten observance with dieting. There is no spiritual consequence if we do so. In fasting we aim for a higher power to gain graces and blessings. We control our bodily passion to gain spiritual power. In Isaiah 58:2 “Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they want God on their side. Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice? Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day and oppress all your workers.” Here we read, they want to come closer to God. They were ready to do fasting but there was something wrong. Even after fasting God was not blessing them. The Lord said, you are serving your own interest. You are fasting or dieting for your own interest to look good.
In verse 4, “You fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.” Some people fast from a variety of food products like milk, fish, eggs, sugar and so on. But at the same time, they have fights with their husbands, wives, parents. They hold anger and unforgiveness. The Lord says this fasting is of no use. There is no spiritual support in this kind of fasting. You are committing sin and you are losing your spirit.
There is another kind of people who the day before fasting like Ash Wednesday and Good Friday will eat a lot of food. In other words, they will compensate this fasting by eating in advance or will eat on the day of Easter. This will also have no spiritual effect on your personal life. Your fasting will not be heard on high. The right kind of fasting has the power to take your prayers to heaven.
Some people fast only to create problems. They fast for lunch and when its dinner time they quarrel and fight just because a certain type of food is not prepared. Basically, their demands are not met. These kinds of people don’t bring peace to the family. They are irritated, angry and hot tempered because they are fasting. In Isaiah 58:4 says “You fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.” It is important to have the right intention when we fast
Some people avoid their responsibilities when fasting. For example, if your mother requests you to go buy something from the grocery store, we say, “I am not going out because I am fasting.” This is wrong. Its better you don’t fast at all.
If you are fasting, do it sincerely and with the right intention. If you do it with a good intention you will receive your reward from heaven. In Isaiah 58: 5 “Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself?” Fasting should be to humble oneself. When you fast you feel weak, your body becomes weak and you realize that without food you cannot even stand. You then start thanking God. We depend on God for our daily bread. By depending on God, we humble ourself. We bow down as mention in Isaiah 58:5, “Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”
Verse 6 says “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” What this means is to do good and holy things while you are fasting or abstaining. Don’t encourage any kind of injustice. Don’t be a yoke for others but break the yoke.
Verse 7 says, ”Is it not to share your bread with the hungry” When you fast you save your lunch money, this money should not be used to gain any other worldly pleasures but should be given in alms. Buy food for the hungry, poor and homeless. This is when your abstinence and fasting becomes meaningful because you are abstaining from food and giving money to the poor. In verse 7 we continue to read, “and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” Sometimes our own family members don’t have enough money to eat a onetime meal. It is our duty and responsibility to fast and save some money and help them.
When you fast, you gain time because you are skipping lunch, use that time effectively, call your parents who are living alone. Console and comfort them. This is another way to make your fasting more meaningful and powerful. Surely when you do this there is a reward for you.
Verse 8 says, “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.” This means that when you fast properly a light will break forth and healing will spring up in your life. This light will bring One – healing and brightness in your family. Two – there will be healing in your body. Three – Your vindicator, the Lord your God will go before you and always be with you. Four – The Glory of God will be in your family. Five – in verse 9 says, “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am.” Which means when you call on God, he will answer you. Your prayers will be answered.
Verse 10 says, “if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” Which means if you do fast and penance properly the Lord will guide you continually. God will satisfy your needs. The Lord will make your bones strong and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail. These are the blessings that are promised.