Some Catholics in recent years have eschewed traditional Lenten notions of sacrifice and fasting — “Oh, I’m not giving anything up this year” — in favor of performing something positive, such as community service, instead. This thinking can be a reaction against practices seen as too gloomy or self-flagellating or against the all-too-common tendency to use Lent as one’s diet (“I’m giving up sweets”) or as a time for self-improvement (“I’m quitting smoking”).
This ambivalence toward fasting was on the radar of Pope Benedict XVI nearly a decade ago. In his 2009 Message for Lent, the Holy Father noted, “In our own day, fasting seems to have lost something of its spiritual meaning, and has taken on, in a culture characterized by the search for material well-being, a therapeutic value for the care of one’s body. Fasting certainly brings benefits to physical well-being, but for believers, it is, in the first place, a ‘therapy’ to heal all that prevents them from conformity to the will of God.”
This understanding of fasting is worth recapturing this Lent. Giving up a good thing creates a space, a blessed absence of sorts, which opens a person up to deeper spiritual realities. The sacrifices of Lent prepare us to celebrate the deepest aspects of the paschal mystery. By giving up something that is good in itself, we are enriched. It is in giving (up) that we receive.
“Denying material food, which nourishes our body, nurtures an interior disposition to listen to Christ and be fed by his saving word,” Pope Benedict wrote. “Through fasting and praying, we allow him to come and satisfy the deepest hunger that we experience in the depths of our being: the hunger and thirst for God.”
Fasting and other self-denying disciplines can bring us closer to others and “open our eyes to the situation in which so many of our brothers and sisters live.” Tying fasting and almsgiving together, Pope Benedict wrote, “By freely embracing an act of self-denial for the sake of another, we make a statement that our brother or sister in need is not a stranger.” U.S. Catholics have great resources at their disposal for Lenten almsgiving. The Catholic Relief Services Rice Bowl, for instance, allows for another form of self-denial — the setting aside of loose change — to be compounded into truly consequential relief for some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world.
Liturgically, the Church also engages in the practice of giving up “good things” for Lent — the Alleluia, the Gloria, floral decorations and, ultimately, statues, altar coverings and Jesus on the cross. And when all these are returned to our worship on Easter Sunday, believers have the opportunity to see it all anew, a fitting echo of the constant need to re-enter and re-engage with sacred mysteries.
“‘To enter into the mystery’ means the ability to wonder, to contemplate; the ability to listen to the silence and to hear the tiny whisper amid great silence by which God speaks to us (cf 1 Kings 19:12),” Pope Francis said in his 2015 Easter Vigil homily, a reflection on “entering the tomb.” The empty tomb is the destination of every Lent — from the desert, to the foot of the cross, to the mouth of the tomb, to the most blessed absence of all — Jesus Christ who “is not here,” but is risen.
This Lent, let us once again make space for the Lord by challenging ourselves to renew our understanding of fasting, so that we may fully appreciate this deep and valuable practice toward our spiritual wellbeing.
OSV Editorial Board: Don Clemmer, Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott Richert, York Young