What comes to mind when we think of fasting?
Some personal thoughts that come to mind include deep hunger pangs, lack of energy, distracting myself to take my mind off the fact that I’m fasting…
Fasting, of course, can come in forms other than fasting from food… abstaining from social media, watching Netflix, a small daily comfort like creamer or sugar in your coffee… but regardless, the challenges of fasting may be the first thoughts that come to mind. At times, we may even wonder honestly if any fruit is actually being born of our fasting.
Our readings today can help us understand this Christian practice and our approach to it more fully. The word of the Lord inspires an approach to fasting that may initially seem counterintuitive: a joyful disposition of heart. The good news for us is that we can’t achieve this in our own power and we are not expected to – this is obtained by God’s grace. First, we must understand His heart on the matter to see how the essence and fruit of fasting ultimately flows from the disposition lying beneath it.
A joyful fast? Does this seem like a bit of a paradox? In the gospel today Jesus seems to explain that his disciples are not fasting but feasting. His prophetic wedding imagery seems to communicate that while He is with them there is joy and feasting, but His Passion and death will bring about their fasting. Why then, in this time of Lent, as we anticipate Christ’s Passion and strive to enter into a spirit of penance am I suggesting we maintain a joyful heart? I believe the answer lies in a deeper understanding of our Christianity so let’s dig a bit deeper…
Lord, help us see this through your eyes…
A couple passages from today’s readings:
“A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn” -Psalm 51
“Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits…
…This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly…
breaking every yoke…
sharing your bread with the hungry…
sheltering the opressed… clothing the naked…
not turning your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
And your wound shall quickly be healed”
-selections from Isaiah 58: 1-9 (emphasis mine)
This passage from Isaiah shows us that fasting in the way of the Lord, sacrificing with a sense of purpose and confidence in God’s power, heals. It heals others and it heals us, and this healing leads to freedom. Fasting in the way of the Lord has the power to heal and free us. How beautiful! This knowledge breeds hope – the source of fasting with a joyful heart.
Now, we can begin to understand how it is possible to fast with a joyful heart – this joy is not feigned. This joy is not a surface-level happiness. It is a fruit of our hope, a virtue so central to our Christian faith. Even as we fast in a spirit of penance, remembering the Lord’s Passion and Death as Jesus foreshadows in the gospel, we can maintain a joyful heart because as we truly unite to His suffering we are also joined to the hope of the resurrection. This is the wonder of our God of paradoxes – through death we gain life. So, through the sufferings of our Lenten fasting, God allows us to enter in to a deeper joy. And because we live in the truth of the Resurrection, we can actually approach fasting with this joyful heart, for we know God will bring forth much fruit and new life from these genuine offerings of our heart. It is our heart that God is seeking, as today’s Psalm reveals: “My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.”
Now, I joyfully join in the sentiments of my priest’s parting words at our Liturgy* last Sunday as I wish you a “Happy Lent!”
Lord, help us begin with a humble and contrite heart. May we experience the freedom that your forgiveness brings, and may this freedom bring us true joy. From our joy, we present our hearts, our Lenten actions, and fasting to you, in the hope of your power and the confidence that you will bring forth new life. Thank you for this season of Lent. We surrender and consecrate it to you. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
*You may have noticed my using the term Liturgy instead of Mass. My husband and I often celebrate Liturgy in the Byzantine Catholic Church, an Eastern tradition of our Catholic faith. (Yes, the Byzantine Catholic rite is in communion with the Pope, and yes, you can attend a Byzantine Divine Liturgy to fulfill your Sunday obligation! 🙂 ) …I’ll have to devote a future post on the beauties of the Eastern rite in the future! For now, I’d love to invite you to pray this Prayer of St. Ephrem, which focuses on virtues Christians are called to practice always, and especially during Lent. The Byzantine Rite prays this during Lent (The Great Fast) and encourages it to be prayed daily during this season.
O Lord and Master of my life,
Spare me from the spirit of apathy and meddling,
Of idle chatter and love of power.
Instead, grant to me, Your servant,
The spirit of integrity and humility,
Of patience and love.
Yes, O Lord and God,
Grant me the grace to be aware of my sins
And not to judge others,
For You are blessed,
Now and forever. Amen
O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
O God, cleanse me of my sins and have mercy on me.
O Lord, forgive me, for I have sinned without number