By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
In his 2009 Lenten Message, Pope Benedict XVI says that the ultimate goal of fasting is not only to strengthen us in our efforts to avoid sin but to help us make the complete gift of self to God.
“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,” the Pope said. “Fasting certainly brings benefits to physical wellbeing, but for believers, it is, in the first place, a ‘therapy’ to heal all that prevents them from conformity to the will of God.”
His message outlines the long tradition of fasting beginning with the book of Genesis where Adam and Eve were commanded to abstain from the fruit of the tree of life to when Jesus spent forty days fasting in the desert.
“Fasting is a practice that is encountered frequently and recommended by the saints of every age,” he said. “St. Peter Chrysologus writes: ‘Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others, you open God’s ear to yourself.’”
Jesus brought the true meaning of fasting to light in the New Testament when he condemned the Pharisees who fasted simply because the law required it while their hearts remained far from God.
“True fasting, as the divine Master repeats elsewhere, is rather to do the will of the Heavenly Father . . . . (T)he believer, through fasting, intends to submit himself humbly to God, trusting in His goodness and mercy.”
The pope called fasting “an important ascetic practice, a spiritual arm to do battle against every possible disordered attachment to ourselves. Freely chosen detachment from the pleasure of food and other material goods helps the disciple of Christ to control the appetites of nature, weakened by original sin, whose negative effects impact the entire human person.”
He concluded by saying “the ultimate goal of fasting is to help each one of us, as Servant of God Pope John Paul II wrote, to make the complete gift of self to God.”
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1. Read the full text of the Pope’s 2009 Lenten Message at http://www.zenit.org/article-24990?l=english
2. Scripture is filled with examples of fasting used for the purpose of making one more humble and accepting of God’s Will:
a. Moses fasted for forty days in preparation for receiving the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28)
b. Daniel fasted for three weeks before receiving his vision (Dan 10:2-6)
c. Elijah fasted forty days before speaking with God (1Kings 19:8)
d. Jesus fasted forty days in preparation for His temptation by the devil (Mat 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-3)
3. The practice of fasting as a means to repent of our sins is also very Biblical:
a. In Esther 4:3,16, people fasted for days to atone for sin
b. In 1 Samuel 7:6, the people fasted and confessed their sins
c. In Jonah 3:8, the King of Nineveh calls for a fast to atone for the people’s sins
4. Fasting is one of the five precepts of the Church. These precepts are called “positive laws” which describe the indispensable minimum required for a person to grow in love of God and neighbor. (These five important precepts can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 2042-2043 which can be found here: http://www.vatican.va/archive/catechism/p3s1c3a3.htm#I )
5. Fasting is also part of the penitential and/or Lenten season. (See Nos. 1438-1439 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, available here: http://www.vatican.va/archive/catechism/p2s2c2a4.htm#VIII )
6. Christian spirituality requires some form of penitential practice in order to ensure that the soul is moving ever closer to God. For this reason, the Church has established obligatory periods of fasting and abstinence which occur throughout the year, and before receiving the Blessed Sacrament. Are you familiar with these obligations? (To review them, see http://www.ewtn.com/faith/lent/fast.htm )
7. What instructions does Jesus give us about how to fast? (See Mat 6:16-18)
8. Take a moment to consider the attitudes with which you approach fasting. Do you observe obligatory fasts because it’s the law, or because you want to repent of your sins and draw closer to God?