Gen 2:7-3:7; Rom 5:12-19; Mt 4:1-11.
I’m a Catholic priest, but not all my family are Catholic, and not all my friends are Catholic, and they find some things strange. One of the things they find most strange is us giving things up for Lent –I’ve been giving up chocolate for years, and a friend of mine always sends me a chocolate bar, Dairy Milk, for Easter Sunday. And he does so, I think, because the whole thing baffles him. ‘But you LIKE chocolate’, he says, ‘why not eat it?’ He can understand dieting for the body, but fasting for the soul seems beyond him.
So, why do we do it? Well, if we want an answer why, it’s nicely laid out for us in the readings for the First Sunday of Lent:
Jesus went out into the desert and fasted and prayed for 40 days, and our Lent of 40 days unites us with that time of Our Lord. To be a follower of Christ, is to see in the life of God-made-man the perfect pattern and meaning of our life -and so to desire to imitate him, including his fasting. And Jesus also taught us to fast, which is why Christians have fasted, even in giving small pleasures.
But this might just raise another question: WHY did Christ go to fast in the desert in the first place?
The answer lies in our first reading with the account of the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve. Our First Parents lived in happiness and harmony, but Sin shattered that. And Sin disrupts OUR human existence and damages our hope of happiness. That damage of sin had to be undone, and that is what Christ went into the desert to start.
The symbolism of the desert, and of references to things like bread, show us that Jesus was re-living the temptation of the people of Israel when they were wandering in the desert. They were tried and failed, but Christ was tried and purified. Not purified on his own behalf (he was perfect God), but on our behalf. Christ, the new Adam, faced and overcame the temptations that the first Adam failed. And in our Lent we are also tested and tempted, and can overcome sin, using the threefold means that Lent gives us: Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
When we fast, or do any form of penance, we are denying ourselves some form of pleasure, and so we help to detach ourselves from it. We help to orient ourselves more on God and less on earthly things.
Our Christian Faith teaches us that the good things of this world are given to us by God to enjoy –they are good, and that’s why we only deny ourselves at certain times –I eat chocolate the rest of the year, and I enjoy it, we have feasts as well as fasts.
But our desires are frequently disordered, we want things in a way that isn’t always good for us, in the extreme, we can get addicted.
Fasting disciplines our desires.
But true fasting isn’t just a good human discipline, like dieting. Fasting must go with the other two things that make up Lent: prayer and almsgiving. By praying, we not only make sure our fasting is oriented to God, but we also make it a more direct imitation of Christ –who both prayed and fasted in the desert. Fasting without prayer can just make us grumpy and disagreeable.
Fasting also changes the way we act towards others. If we’re purifying and detaching ourselves, then we should be more free to love. One way we do this is by giving to the poor.
I sometimes hear people say, ‘Oh, I’m not giving up things, I’m doing something positive!’ Well, it would be better to do both, actually to do all three: pray, fast, alms. Choose a small thing to give up, a small daily prayer to add, or weekday Mass, or Stations, and a small work of generosity for Lent.
If you haven’t yet decided what you’re giving up for Lent, decide now. Make the most of what the Church calls “This joyful season” –joyful because we have union with Christ.
We Catholics do things the world counts odd, but I’m not afraid of that –I think the modern world is more that a bit odd! I’m more than happy to stand with 2000 years of Christian tradition, and to stand with Christ who, for me and for you, went into the desert and fasted 40 days.