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THE VALUE OF FASTING TODAY

Father Francis's picture
Week after Ash Wednesday

Is. 58:1-9 & Mt. 9:14-15

The disciples of John were anxious to know why Jesus' followers did not fast as the Pharisees did. Fasting played a large part in Jewish tradition and it seemed strange that the disciples of a religious teacher did not practise this custom. Jesus was not opposed to fasting - in fact He saw the need for it in His own life - but He wanted to remind people of its true purpose.

Isaiah had also tried to teach people how to fast because it was intended to bring them closer to God and help them to express sorrow for their sins. But for many people it had become a meaningless ritual. They would lie on sackcloth in a public place, cover themselves in ashes, and make sure everyone knew that they were fasting. Yet the fasting made no difference to their way of life. They continued to quarrel, to oppress the poor, to ignore the needs of others. Isaiah warned them that this was not true penance and would not find favour with God.

Many of the Pharisees with whom Jesus was acquainted had a similar attitude to fasting. They pretended to display their commitment, by whitening their faces and looking as if they were suffering, but there was no interior change. Their penance was not genuine. They were fasting, not to grow closer to God, but to win the admiration of other people.

Jesus condemned their hypocrisy. If fasting is to be worthwhile it must be combined with the good works which Isaiah had mentioned: compassion for the poor, generosity towards the hungry and the homeless, a real desire for justice.

Jesus knew the true value of fasting. Before beginning His ministry He spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness, drawing close to His Father and gaining spiritual strength to help Him with the work He had to do. When we fast, we are also trying to become closer to God by disciplining ourselves, as we repent of our sins and obtain the strength we need to live Christian lives. But our repentance has to be sincere, it has to make us want to love each other more. Otherwise it is as empty for us as the Pharisees' false holiness was for them.

If fasting is a good thing, why didn't Jesus' disciples fast? They had no need to fast as a means of seeking God for they had God with them. Jesus described Himself as a bridegroom celebrating with his friends. The time would come when He would no longer be with them in the flesh, and then fasting would become a necessary part of their prayer life.

For centuries the Church has encouraged us to practise fasting but today the idea of self-denial is not popular. We tend to be more preoccupied with tasty meals and fast foods, with cookery programmes on television achieve some of the highest viewing figures. Fasting, especially during Lent, can help us to be stronger Christians. If we can say ‘No’ to some innocent pleasure like enjoying a meal, then we can learn to say ‘No’ to sin. Fasting can also help those in the Third World who have no choice but to fast. In this way our fasting goes hand in hand with our almsgiving. Whatever we are giving up this Lent, let's make sure we do it with a generous heart.

Lord Jesus, let us recall how much you suffered for us and, inspired by You, help us to do our fasting, almsgiving and praying this Lent with love in our heart, as a thank you for all You did for us.

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