The Key to True Fasting

Required fasting is almost non-existent in the Catholic Church today. Even the two days where fasting is required for those over 18 and under 60, it is really a mitigated fast of two small “snack-like” meals and one regular sized meal (no snacks in between now!). Not really a fast at all. A truer fast (going without food for the whole day) is practiced by some today as a personal discipline and it is laudable if a person is able.

Yet, even the mitigated fast is “hard” for many as are most bodily disciplines in our soft western world. We may think we just have to learn to be “tougher” and, by the power of our own flesh pull it off. I have no doubt that simple will power can  in fact pull off a fast, especially the mitigated one. But even a non-believer can diet and fast. What we must seek is true fasting, spiritual fasting that is far richer than merely abstaining from food.

In today’s Gospel Jesus gives an important key to true spiritual fasting. Let’s read:

The disciples of John [the Baptist] approached Jesus and said, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast much, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” (Matt 9:14-15)

Notice the pattern. First comes the (wedding) feast, then comes the fast. What does this mean? Well, consider the wedding feasts of Jesus’ time. They often went on for several days, even a week. During this time there was food, feasting, family, fellowship, and did I mention food? Lots  of it, with wine too! It was a time of satiation. But eventually this time of feasting ended and by that time, people were filled. They’d had enough food for a while and now fasting of a sort made sense, it happened naturally without a lot of effort. What does this teach us and why does Jesus use this image regarding fasting?

Simply put, if you want to have the capacity to fast spiritually and truly you have to experience the wedding feast of the Lamb of God. In this great wedding feast which we are to experience through prayer, scripture and especially the Liturgy we are to be filled with Christ. We are to encounter him and feast abundantly on his Word, his Body and Blood and to rejoice with him exceedingly. And when this happens we are authentically equipped to fast.

At some point the “groom is taken” from us. That is to say, the Mass ends and we’re back to dealing with the world and its demands. Or perhaps we enter a penitential season, or perhaps we go through a difficult time where God seems distant or we struggle with temptation. Now a fast of sorts is before us.  But we are able to do so and are spiritually equipped to do it since we have been to the Wedding feast and feasted with the groom. Having done this the world and its charms mean less. We are filled with Christ now and we simply need less of the world. This is true fasting.

But let me ask you, Have you met Christ and been to the wedding feast with him? One of the sad realities in parish life and in the Church is that there are many people who have never really met Jesus Christ. They have heard about him and know about him, but they’ve never really encountered him powerfully in prayer or the Mass. They are faithful to be sure. They are sacramentalized but unevangelized. They know about Jesus, but they don’t know him.  The liturgy to them can be,  and often is, lifeless, a ritual to be endured rather than an encounter with Jesus Christ. Instead of being at a wedding feast, the Mass is more like a visit to the doctor’s office. The majority of the Mass for them is a “waiting room” experience. Finally, up to get the medicine (Holy Communion) which is great because now it means the Mass is almost over! Personal prayer isn’t much better. Another ritual, say some prayers, and be done with it. God is really more of a stranger and fasting is just another rule to follow more out of obedience to avoid punishment than out of love which seeks purification.

The disciples of John seem to have been of this sort. They were tough and self-disciplined. They knew how to fast! But it was a fasting of the flesh not the spirit. The only way to truly fast in a spiritual way is to have been to the wedding feast and feasted with the Jesus the great bridegroom of the Church. Then having been filled with every good adn perfect gift true fasting can begin.

And what is true fasting? It is a fasting that no longer needs what the world offers in large amounts. We need less of the world for we have found a better prize: Jesus and his Kingdom. Who needs all that food, booze, power, money, baubles, bangles and beads? In the words of an old song: “I’d rather have Jesus than silver and gold. You may have all this world! Just give me Jesus! “

We can only say this if we have really met the Lord and been satisfied by him. Only then can true fasting ensue. As you my expect, meeting Jesus is more than an event. It is a gradual and deepening awareness of him and his power in my life and in the liturgy. Make sure you don’t miss the wedding feast for it is the key to the truest fasting of all.

20 Replies to “The Key to True Fasting”

  1. May we all hold fast to your words and the traditions of the Church. Dominus Vobiscum, Ken

  2. “They know about Jesus, but they don’t know him.”

    I’ve heard it put this way, that some people are fans of Jesus and others are followers. Even those of us who go beyond what’s required by attending extra Masses during the week, having regular prayer time, and frequent confession are always called to more.

    For example, I’m a reader. I have books in every corner of the house, all of them focused on deep spirituality. Wonderful. Except that after years of reading the Doctors of the Church, popular Carmelite saints, and encyclicals, it suddenly occurred to me – by the grace of God – that it was time to begin some “application.” Why not try applying what I’d been reading into my daily life? In other words, instead of being a fan of this stuff, why not use it, apply it, and become a true follower of the Faith?

    I’ve been a different person ever since.

    Excellent post, Monsignor. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for the testimony. Some years ago I preached a priest retreat and one of the confrences was on this theme that you have set forth. I titled it: Back to Reality

  3. Thank you, Monsignor

    Today’s post gives us spiritual food on which to feast. May we each attain a higher degree of spiritual fast during this “Springtime of the Heart”

    Pax Christi

  4. Dear Monsignor Pope,
    Wow! Coincidentally, I discovered this yesterday.
    Last week I read that Benedict XVI has opined since the 1960’s that Catholicism is not a set of rules, but rather, “An encounter with a person which changes your horizons. ”
    I converted when I met my husband, and received first communion on my wedding day. It really surprised me when I got communion, because one thing became clear; this was not a symbolic situation. Something inside of me woke up and took notice.
    Even with that awareness on my wedding day, I was painfully slow to catch on. It is almost Eleven years later, and I know I have been told over and over to seek Jesus in my prayers, but I took it to mean, I don’t know, a chance to talk at Him, which makes it all seem abstract. I cannot stress enough that inviting Jesus into my heart is no more an abstraction than communion, and yet I have treated it as a symbolic type experience.
    I was fortunate enough to catch an hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament yesterday during my church’s forty hours of Eucharistic Adoration. I finally ‘heard His call’. In one sense I feel rather slow witted to have taken this long, but then I read your article, and can see it all in perspective. I think whether or not someone has been evangelized must be a complicated mixture of willingness on a person’s part, and a grace from God.
    Either way, thank you for your clarifications. Your articles have been really inspiring to read. Even some of the comments have added to my understanding of a number of topics.
    God Bless You and your work.

  5. One of the sad realities in parish life and in the Church is that there are many people who have never really met Jesus Christ. They have heard about him and know about him, but they’ve never really encountered him powerfully in prayer or the Mass. They are faithful to be sure. They are sacramentalized but unevangelized. They know about Jesus, but they don’t know him.

    There is a lesson in the hidden years of Jesus’ life. His neighbors knew Him, saw Him everyday, spoke to Him, laughed with Him, ate with Him. But they did not “know” Him; or, rather, they knew Him, but did not know that they knew Him. Even during His ministry, He could walk down the street and most people who not have a clue as to who He was.

    Sometimes — often times maybe — Jesus is right next to us or walking by us or speaking to us. The problem is that we don’t realize it.

    I struggled for years trying to determine exactly what the “Theology of the Body” was, never really getting my finger on it, and then I suddenly discovered that I knew what it was all along, only I didn’t know that I knew it. I simply had never made the connection between a certain set of teachings and the name “Theology of the Body.”

    Sometimes we do know Jesus, He is right there talking to us, but we don’t realize that it is He to whom we are speaking, we do not know that it is He who has healed our blindness.

    At the same time, sometimes there are people who have never heard the name “Jesus” who know Him intimately — they know Him in their hearts, even if they do not know Him in their heads.

    And this knowing of Jesus in our hearts is crucial, especially since He said that there will be people coming up to Him crying, “Lord, Lord,” and He will send them away saying, “I never knew you.”

    Of course, the better way is to know Him both in our hearts and explicitly in our heads, to know Him fully in the entirety of our being, body and soul; to not only live life, but to know Life, to join with Him who is eternal food as He spends 40 days in the desert, and to truly be able to know Him on our lips, both in prayer with Him and in witness to others.

  6. Thank you for this wonderful and enlightening blog Msgr. I fast regularly, not just before Mass or during lent etc. I was always one to do more than expected because it feels good to do a little more, especially for the Lord. It mostly involves food, but not just fasting at the appropriate times. I also deny myself things as a sort of sacrifice. For example, I like at the end of a long day to have a glass of wine. One night, I decided to skip it to show my appreciation to the Lord for all he has done for me. It wasn’t planned, I decided on the spot, it just felt right. As far as fasting from the world, until I read your blog I never knew my wife and I were already doing that. We have a 3 bedroom ranch. Could we afford a bigger home, yes but why? Just to impress our friends? Same thing with our cars. Since I turned my life over to our Lord I find myself desiring less of this world and more of the grace of God. And I ended up marrying a woman who worries if I think she is cheap, go figure! God Bless you Father.

  7. Dear Monsignor,
    In case you take requests;
    Your article above reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend about the Venerable John Paul II and certain habits he had which became public in the past week or so. He ‘took the discipline’ and he slept on the floor. Some Catholics are horrified by what seems like a medieval practice, but my friend offered, in JP II’s defense, how much mortification a Pope can come by in his daily life. I added that it is only shocking because we forget he was a man in addition to being our very Holy Holy Father.
    I may be wrong, but I think clarification is called for on behalf of our late great Holy See.
    I confess to being a bit of a Catholic news junky. You stand out because you take on very interesting subjects, you offer simple and clear explanations and you respond to your readers. I’m sure you can generate your own material, but in case you hadn’t considered explaining this one to your loyal readers, well, I for one would be grateful.

  8. On fasting, is it ok to eat a little something before mass (not directly before) if you have an illness that could cause, say, fainting, or other issues? I only ask because I do have a blood disorder that causes dizziness and fainting among other problems and if I don’t eat before mass I get very lightheaded, but I feel guilty if I do eat. I’ve had this disorder my whole life but was recently diagnosed with new symptoms for it…meaning that I deal with it every day and I should be able to control my symptoms but some of them are still new for me. This might seem like a lot of info for a question, but when I ask about things like this people usually want to know a reason, and I am upfront about my disorder anyways, so I don’t mind sharing this info.

    1. Katherine —

      Regarding the Eucharistic fact, Canon 919 of the Code of Canon Law states, “One who is to receive the Most Holy Eucharist is to abstain from any food or drink, with the exception of water and medicine, for at least the period of one hour before Holy Communion.” However, there are some exceptions. And since Communion generally isn’t received until about 45 minutes into Mass on a Sunday, and it often takes at least 15 minutes to get to the church, that really isn’t much of a requirement.

      More on this here, from Fr. William Saunders’ “Straight Answers” column.

      1. Regarding the Eucharistic fact . . .

        Although it is “a fact,” I meant to say, “Eucharistic fast . . .”

        About Lenten fast and abtension generally, it really does kind of force you to be aware and awake. I remember the last time I “broke” the meatless Friday rule, when I stopped in Safeway on a Lenten Friday to get something, was passing by the deli counter, the lady behind it said, “would you like to try this turkey?” Not thinking, I said, “Sure, thank you.” Put the sample in my mouth, got about two chews into it, and then remembered — it’s Friday!

  9. Thank You Msgr. for that wonderful post about the real meaning of fasting this Lenten Season.I fast in foods but I do practice fasting in every thing I do, as a teenager I am addicted to the Internet so instead of wasting my day surfing the internet I just spent an hour a day just to check some updates, in that sense I do practice fasting. What I learn is that we also need to fast the vices of the world, the things that makes us happy, we need to lessen it to reflect Jesus sufferings for us. God Bless Msgr.

  10. Love this! Rules I try to follow poignantly captured by a most BEAUTIFUL lady!!


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