Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Lenten Fast and Easter Feast

In plain language fasting is the act of abstaining from some food or some meals, the exercise of depriving oneself with a meal or a kind of food. It is an ascetic act aimed to strengthen one’s character vis-à-vis the strong desire of the human body for food. It is true the appetite to eat is nature’s way for man to live and to survive. But left unchecked it can develop in him an uncontrollable hunger for food that would eventually make him a slave to his stomach.

In the Church fasting is a religious practice that carries with it a penitential overtone. Its purpose is to discipline man’s body, its desire and its instincts. It is for this reason that the Season of Lent starts up with fasting together with prayers and almsgiving. These acts of penances are there to call the faithful to revisit the import of religious discipline in their lives, in their behavior and character. In the journey of life, man’s instincts sometimes go haywire, his heart hardens due to selfishness and greed for things of this earth, character slackens as he indulges himself with the ease and comfort of fine living, consciousness gradually being pushed further away from the presence of the transcendent God. He needs to recover his Christian poise and original integrity that is pleasing to the Father. And to do that, the Church a good mother as she is, reminds us of her precept that runs this way: “You shall observe the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence”. It is hoped that this precept will help the faithful to regain the mastery over his instincts and the freedom of heart which marks him a genuine child of God.

Fast and abstinence, though of the same kind, are different in sort. Both are disciplines intended to control body appetite, its need and desire for food. They demand from the faithful the discipline to deprive themselves of a meal on the appointed days. But they are different in that fasting specifically orders the faithful to eat in the prescribed day one meal instead of three, while abstinence is the discipline of not eating meat on Fridays of Lent.

Fasting/abstinence needless to say is a revered practice in any major religion. A religion that does not obliged fasting from their followers is a religion not worth its name. The Mohammedans strictly keep the fast of Ramadan, wherein the faithful have to abstain from eating from dawn to sunset. The genuine Israelites assiduously keep fasting on the Day of Atonement. The Book of Leviticus prescribed this once a year fasting, obliging all men to mortify themselves from morning to evening (cf. 16:29-34) During the time of Jesus, however, the Israelites did not only fulfill fasting on the Day of Atonement, but many of them practiced private fasting. It is no wonder that the disciples of John the Baptizer asked Jesus ‘why is it that while we and the Pharisees fast, your disc iples do not’? Jesus had a good response to the query, but He did not totally dispense his disciples from fasting. In fact, Jesus immediately declared: “When the day comes that the groom is taken away, then they will fast” (cf. Mt 9:14-15).

Because of the deprivation of the body of its basic need such as food, fasting unfortunately has not caught the fancy of our modern day mind-set. It is a depressing activity to say the least, a remnant of a medieval kind of spirituality that is too heavy and too ascetic. In recent years, however, fasting has experienced a resurgence of its practice. But the motivations that cause its resurgence are varied and oftentimes secular. Some groups who are religiously practicing fasting today are believers of the great religions of the East. To enter into the meaning of yoga and transcendental meditation, they have to undergo fasting. They have to restrain themselves from eating indiscriminately. To acquire the spiritual power that they want, or, to reach the peace of mind amidst the ambiguities of life, they have to undergo these religious practices that include the discipline in the proper intake of food. Other groups take good health as their motivation for fasting. Actually, they do not call it fasting. They call it dieting. These group believe that easy life is unhealthy, that the undisciplined intake of food makes one soft and flabby. In contrast regulated dieting makes one trimmed, healthy and disciplined.

But the Christian fulfills the practice of fasting as duly prescribed by our Lord Jesus Himself and His Church. As our Lord said: “When I am no longer with them, then, they will fast” (ibid). And so we fast. And we do it for we are convinced that by rendering our table poorer and denying our stomach of some of our favorite food, we learn to free ourselves from our selfish selves, start to discover that there is Someone besides ourselves, “the One and only God, whom we shall adore” (cf. Dt. 6”4-9), and hope to recognize Him in the faces of our least brothers and sisters ( cf. Mt. 25: 40). It is hoped that the Lenten fast would lead the faithful to the real celebration of Easter which can only be savored to the fullest by one who has undergone the agony of a stomach in fasting, articulately expressing the empty spirit it has in its struggle to reach out to God and neighbor. Here, fasting has evolved itself into a feasting.

In his Lenten Message, the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI expressed this truth beautifully: “For Christians, fasting, far from being depressing, opens us ever more to God and to the needs of other, thus allowing love of God to become also love of our neighbor” (cf. Mk 12:31).

As Catholics then, let us joyfully take on fasting and abstinence for all that is worth.