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Father Nicholas Nelson: Fasting: What’s the big deal?

Lent is a time of repentance and renewal. It’s about recommitting ourselves to knowing, loving, and serving God and loving our neighbor as Christ loved us. To help us, the church has prescribed three traditional practices, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Jesus speaks of these three in the Sermon on the Mount, and we hear about them every Ash Wednesday for our Gospel. For this month’s column, I’d like to speak on the power and meaning behind fasting.

Father Nick Nelson
Handing on the Faith

When we were born, we were born with both original sin and with concupiscence. “Concupiscence” is a fancy word meaning that our passions are disordered. They are not ordered according to reason. They don’t push us towards what is good or in accord with the truth. Our passions often push us towards that which isn’t actually good for us, such as we want to lash out at the person who cut us off driving, we want to eat three pieces of chocolate cake, or we may desire to use our sexuality contrary to our state of life and with the wrong person. When we were baptized, original sin and all personal sin to that point were washed away, but concupiscence remained. Concupiscence means our intellect isn’t in full control of our passions. Until we die, we will have to live with the fact that our passions are disordered and not under the reign of our reason.

St. Paul famously wrote, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). The integrated person, the saint, has her spiritual nature and animal nature going in the same direction. Fasting helps this. We are helping our intellect rightly order our passions, in particular our sensible appetites. When we fast, our reason is controlling our passions rather than our passions controlling us. In a word, if I can say, “No!” to myself regarding something that is objectively good, such as meat, or a beer, or no to eating for a particular amount of time, then I can say “no!” to bad things, i.e., sin, when temptation does come my way.

Over time, with the help of fasting, we won’t want to lash out at someone, we will only want one piece of cake, we will give glory to God for the beauty of someone rather than desire to sexually use them.

Fasting can take many forms. There can be media fasts and fasting from other things, which means you just give them up. But fasting specifically concerns eating or drinking. The technical fast prescribed for Catholics 18-58 years of age on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday is eating one normal sized meal for the day, and, if necessary, an additional one or two snacks that don’t equal the size of the normal meal. Historically in the Latin Catholic Church and currently in many Eastern Catholic Churches, fasting during Lent means not eating any meat or dairy and just one meal a day taken in the evening. This is sometimes called a “black fast.” Intermittent fasting means you only eat during a prescribed few hours during the day, such as between noon and 6 p.m.

In addition to the possible health benefits and the rightful ordering of the passions, there are a number theological and historical reasons for fasting. Fasting reminds us of our parents’ first fault, which was disobedience in eating what was off limits, i.e. the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Fasting from meat and dairy takes us back to the time before the fall, because Adam and Eve didn’t eat the flesh of animals until after the fall.

Jesus himself fasted. Most famously, he fasted for 40 days in the desert before he began his public ministry. Every Ash Wednesday, we hear Jesus’s words on fasting. His words presume that fasting is already being done and is a noble and praiseworthy endeavor. He says, “When you fast ….”

Fasting also reminds us of our dependence on God. It is an act of trust and faith in him, that he will ultimately fulfill me.

Finally, fasting is an act of love. It says, “God, I love you more than I love myself. I am willing to sacrifice my own pleasure and comfort as a sign that I love you more.”

There is a connection between fasting and almsgiving. The money that we would have spent on food can be given to the poor. If your parish is like mine, you probably have a fund for the poor and needy. At the end of Lent, you could estimate how much money you saved on by not consuming alcohol, snacks, sweets, or just by eating less, and write a check for the needy fund at your parish.

There is a connection between fasting and prayer. When we fast, biologically, more blood is flowing to our brain, which allows us to concentrate better. While we fast, there is a bodily hunger that takes place, which is a good sign or symbol of our hunger for God.

This Lent, consider fasting more than just on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Be prudent, but fast from certain foods or drinks or for periods of time that stretch you a bit more.

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of Queen of Peace and Holy Family parishes in Cloquet. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected].