Just as we imitate God’s generosity to us by our almsgiving to others during Lent, we also imitate Jesus’ fasting. St. John Henry Newman wrote that Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights for our sakes, “to bless our abstinence to the good of our souls and bodies.”
Although Jesus had no need to fast, being sinless, his fasting was still not like our own efforts at fasting. His was superior to our efforts in both its “intensity and also its object.” Jesus fasted from food for 40 days, a feat in and of itself, making his efforts at fasting much more intense than what we are asked to do during our 40 days. The object of his fasting was also different. While we do our best to participate in Jesus’ journey by overcoming ourselves and seeking the will of God, the New American Bible (NAB) reminds us that Jesus’ primary purpose of these 40 days was to recall, to re-live in his own person, the forty years during which Israel was tempted in the desert. Where the Israelites failed in their desert temptations, Jesus succeeds. “The testings of Jesus resemble those of Israel during the wandering in the desert and later Canaan, and the victory of Jesus, the true Israel and true Son of God, contrasts with the failure of the ancient and disobedient “son,” the old Israel.” (NAB)
We fast as a form of penitence, “to subdue the flesh,” St. John Newman tells us, but the pattern we follow was set by Jesus himself. The three temptations Jesus suffers are the same that tested the Israelites. While the Israelites failed to maintain worship of God alone, Jesus “shows his true sonship to God the Father through his obedience and does not rebel against God” (NAB), but instead submits to his will. Likewise, in the second temptation, Jesus refuses to test God by demanding from him an extraordinary show of power. Instead, Jesus chooses to trust God. He believes him. He has faith in him. Finally, in the third temptation of Christ the devil tells Jesus that if he will “prostrate [himself] and worship me,” (Mt.4:9) he will give him all the kingdoms of the world. To this, Jesus cries “Get away, Satan! It is written: ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.’” (Mt 4:10) This specific worship that the devil demands is most likely intended to recall Israel’s worship of false gods, since Jesus’ refusal is a repeating of the words of Deuteronomy 6:13, when the nation of Israel was reminded, even exhorted over and over, to worship God alone.
It would seem that fasting so intensely would weaken Jesus, making him more vulnerable to the attacks of the devil, more likely to fail in his mission. Yet, it seems to do the opposite. This pattern of fasting, the fasting that St. John Newman is talking about, a fasting that involves prayer and almsgiving, does more than simply subdue our bodies. In some mysterious way, it also gives strength to our souls so that we are more able to withstand the temptations we face in our own lives. This, then, is the invitation that we are extended every Lent, to wander into the desert, taking with us the weapons and tools of fasting and prayer, so that we can see who we really are and what we really should be doing. As St. John Newman reminds us “even in our penitential exercises, when we could least have hoped to find a pattern in Him, Christ has gone before us to sanctify them to us. He has blessed fasting as a means of grace, in that He has fasted,” and he has triumphed. May we each find that same strength from Christ this Lent.