How the lenten discipline of fasting opens up the true horizon of life’s meaning, purifying us of unhealthy material attachments and opening the way for the eternal Word to penetrate our hearts.
Lent is a sacred season which helps us to make sense of life. Why is this the case? Precisely because through the sincere and ardent practice of the disciplines of Lent—prayer, fasting and almsgiving—our lives are reoriented to Christ, which means our lives have more meaning—divine light floods in, displacing darkness. Lent fully engaged, is fruitful in opening up the true horizon of life which lies before us: it helps us to understand in truth who we really are, why we exist, and how to correctly pursue our ultimate destiny of happiness in union with God. On Ash Wednesday of 2016, Pope Benedict XVI said:
Lent encourages us to let the Word of God penetrate our life and thus to know the fundamental truth: who we are, where we come from, where we must go, what road to take in life. And thus, the Season of Lent offers us an ascetic and liturgical route which, while helping us to open our eyes to our weakness, opens our hearts to the merciful love of Christ. (General Audience, 1 March, 2016)
It is perhaps easy for us to understand how the prayer to which God unceasingly calls us can enrich our lives with beauty and truth in drawing us into communion with the Person of Beauty and Truth, Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 14:6), but how does the Lenten discipline of fasting work to enhance our union with Christ and bring divine light into our lives? In a word, fasting purifies. Through the process of purification, the Word of God made flesh penetrates our lives.
The act of fasting is a voluntary act of penance: a personal choice to suffer intentionally for the love of Christ and the love of others, offering reparation for our sins and the sins of others. It purifies us through voluntary self-denial of disordered or excessive attachments to material things, such as food. The suffering we undergo during fasting can be applied, through prayerful intercession, to others, bestowing some of the merit of our penitential fast upon our neighbor. Fasting done properly, then, is an act of charity, not only toward God but also perhaps completed for the sake of benefiting others spiritually.
Further, fasting is a way of concretely expressing our love for God over and above our love for self. When fasting is based on charity, it is undergone for the love of Christ, for the sake of our heartfelt love for him. It is an expression of self-denial as gift to the Divine Person of the incarnate Son of God, who so selflessly underwent suffering in his humanity as a self-offering of love to the Father. In Christ’s self-oblation, uniting his human will perfectly to the will of the Father in sacrifice on the cross, redemption is won for humanity collectively. The love of Christ, given as a divine and human gift, has put eternal death to death.
We often hear it said that we cannot repay Christ for his sacrifice on the cross. That is true; however, it should never be taken to mean we need offer nothing. The fact is, we must offer our life, entirely and completely, to him who is Life Itself. Our Lady, the sweet Virgin Mary, is the exemplary model of this holy path of truth. Our gift of human freedom must always be put to proper use; it is not to be carelessly squandered in favor of worldly living.
Catholics ages 18 to 59 are required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday of the Passion of the Lord, health permitting. However, it is certainly spiritually beneficial to fast more often, even all throughout the year. Fridays are especially fitting as days of fasting, since that is the day on which our Lord offered his body and blood for the redemption of humankind, and that salvation by available to everyone.
Whenever you give yourself over to Christ, such as in voluntarily suffering through fasting, the light of the eternal Word penetrates your mind and heart. This fosters virtue, brings happiness and joy, and sets you on the proper course of life, provided you continue to respond to the impulses of the Holy Spirit. For example, this presumes you leave all mortal sin behind (such as breaking one of the Ten Commandments with full knowledge and consent), attend the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, and live in the heart of the Church in full communion with her entire Spirit-guided belief.
Many medical experts report fasting is good for the body and the brain; however, more importantly, it’s fruitful and profitable for the human spirit—not only your own but that of others as well. There’s a beautiful, spiritual dimension to fasting, which means it is good for the body and the mind because it is an efficacious means of joining us more intimately in union with Christ. And that is everything. It purifies us in order that our hearts are open to the sublime beauty, goodness and truth of God. It is an especially exceptional preparation for receiving the Risen Lord, his body, blood, soul and divinity, in the divine sacrament of Eucharist offered on the sacred altar at Mass.