In 2011 the Catholic Church in England and Wales returned to the obligatory practice of abstaining from eating meat on Friday. The allowance, after Vatican II, for self-motivated substitutions to this rule, resulted in the erroneous widespread belief that the rule itself had been abolished. Not surprisingly, fasting gradually disappeared from the ordinary lives of many Catholics. The Bishops of England and Wales are now reestablishing the practice of Friday penance in order to unite Catholics and restore Catholic identity.
We first hear of the commandment to fast in Genesis, where man is prohibited from eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. After Adam and Eve's expulsion from the garden fasting is proposed, in the stories of Ezra and Nineveh, as an instrument to restore our friendship with God. In the New Testament Jesus brings to light the true and most profound meaning of fasting, which is to do the will of the Heavenly Father who "sees in secret and will reward you"(Mt 6:18). Jesus himself sets the example, answering Satan, at the end of forty days and forty nights in the desert: "man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" (Mt 4:4). True fasting then is eating the "true food" which is doing the Father's will. If, therefore, Adam disobeyed God's directive not to eat of the Tree, the believer, through fasting, intends to submit himself humbly to God, trusting in His goodness and mercy.
Fasting is recorded in the early Church and is frequently encountered and recommended by the saints of every age. Today, however, fasting has lost much of its spiritual meaning. To a great extent it has been replaced by non-religious fasting meant to look good and impress others. While fasting does bring certain benefits to our physical well-being, it is, for Christians, primarily a means of mortifying our egoism, avoiding sin, and opening our hearts to the Love of God and our fellow man.
Denying material food, which nourishes our body, nurtures an interior disposition to listen to our Lord and be nourished by his saving word. Through prayer and fasting we allow Christ so satisfy our deepest hunger and thirst for God. At the same time fasting helps us recognize the situation in which so many of our brothers and sisters live. In his First Letter, St. John admonishes: "How can God's love survive in a man who has enough of this world's goods yet closes his heart to his brother when he sees him in need?" (1 Jn 3:17).
What is demanded of all Christians at this time is fasting, abstinence, almsgiving, restriction of personal desires and pleasures, intense prayer, confession, and similar penitential elements.
Limiting ourselves to what is absolutely essential and necessary in an attitude of dignified, deliberate simplicity is a formula for patience and tolerance; it is an opportunity to acknowledge and emphasize our need for God's assistance and mercy, placing our complete trust in His affectionate providence; it is a prescription for salvation.
Let us be up and on our way.
Paul Kokoski writes from Hamilton, Ontario.