In Catholic households across the country, it is very common to ask, “What are you giving up for Lent?” Many will say, they are giving up chocolate, junk food, Facebook or another thing that can consume one’s life. The idea of “giving up” something is meant to reference fasting, one of the three pillars of Lent.
Fasting is an aspect of Lent that oftentimes is underappreciated because it challenges us both physically and spiritually to let go of something we want for 40 days. But, if we take a look at fasting with a fresh set of eyes, we will not focus so much on what we are giving up, but rather, what we can truly gain.
Simply put, fasting means to abstain from food or drink.
There are several biblical references to fasting in both the Old and New Testament, but probably the two most famous examples are: the Israelites wandering in the desert after their exodus from Egypt and Christ’s 40 days in the desert when the devil tempts him.
Throughout the 40 days of Lent, fasting, along with prayer and almsgiving, are meant to deepen our relationship with God in preparation for Easter, when we will celebrate the resurrection of Christ, who redeemed us.
In preparation to writing this reflection, I told myself to pay close attention to the “symptoms” my body would physically exhibit while I was fasting on Ash Wednesday. Here is what I discovered:
At 6 a.m. after I woke up, I did not eat anything, which was difficult for me because I am a firm believer of “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” As I was leaving for work, I felt a slight twinge of hunger, but it was nothing that I could not handle.
Around 9:30 a.m. that twinge grew into a deep pang. My stomach was loudly growling and it felt as if summersaults were being performed inside of me. All I could focus my attention on was my stomach. I tried to distract myself by writing emails and answering phone calls, until finally, I said a quick prayer at my desk asking for God’s help to get through it … without whining.
Luckily, around 10:30 a.m., the hunger subsided and did not seem to be that bad. Later that morning, the diocesan campus celebrated Ash Wednesday Mass at 11:45 a.m.
I was surprised to realize how nourished I felt after receiving holy Communion. My physical hunger disappeared, which was shocking because I did not eat a five-course meal, but rather, received one small host.
The small host not only physically nourishes our bodies, but it also spiritually feeds us. When we fast, we turn away from whatever is coming between our relationship with God. Our culture is abundantly blessed to have so many technological opportunities to connect with one another; however, they can also become burdensome when we do not remember to take a quiet moment to talk with God.
Throughout Lent, I have made a conscious effort to turn off the TV, put away my iPad and put down my current book in order to quietly meditate for at least 30 minutes. At first, finding an extra 30 minutes in my day was extremely difficult to do because of my jam-packed schedule. Now, I crave those 30 minutes to be able to sit quietly and listen to God. When we fast, God speaks to us and reminds us that he is all we need. He will guide us and show us the way.
But we have to remember that fasting is intricately connected to both prayer and almsgiving. These three pillars are not meant to be separated. Through prayer, we can focus more intently on God. Through fasting, we can purge ourselves of unnecessary things that distance us from God. And through almsgiving, we can love our neighbor because God loves us.
Pope Francis recently said in a homily, “true charity or fasting means breaking the chains of evil, freeing the oppressed, sharing our bread with the hungry, opening our houses to the homeless and clothing the naked … this is the charity or fasting that our Lord wants! Charity that is concerned about the life of our brother.”
By looking at fasting with a fresh set of eyes, like Pope Francis has, we can gain a better relationship with Christ, and in turn, we can gain new and improved relationships with one another. As a missionary disciple of Christ, each person is called to be loving and compassionate to their neighbor both near and far.
During the remaining days of Lent, I encourage you to really fast from the things that can distract us from building a better relationship with Christ. Consider reaching out to someone in need. Go outside of your comfort zone.
We can find Christ on the margins, but we just have to open our eyes, see him and go to him. Christ can be found in a single parent home raising children. Christ can also be found on the streets hungry with no place to stay. Christ can be found lonely in a nursing home or hospital with no one to visit. Christ can be found forgotten in a prison. Christ is all around us; we just need to see him and go to him.
Orr is the director of Living Justice for the Diocese of Green Bay.