Required fasting is almost non-existent in the Catholic Church today. And even that required “fasting” (for those between the ages of 18 and 59) is really just eating somewhat less than normal (one regular meal and two small “snack-like” meals with no snacking between meals). Not much of a fast, really. Real fasting (going without food for the entire day) is practiced by some today as a personal discipline and it is laudable if a person is able to do so.
Yet even the mitigated fast is “hard” for many, as are most bodily disciplines in the soft Western world. We may think that we just have to get “tougher” and that by the power of our own flesh we can pull it off. I have no doubt that simple will power can get one through a fast, especially the mitigated one that is required. But even a non-believer can diet and fast. What we must seek is true fasting, spiritual fasting, which is far richer than merely forgoing food.
In the Gospel for today (Friday after Ash Wednesday), Jesus gives us an important key to true spiritual fasting:
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 the fast. What does this mean? Well, consider the wedding feasts of Jesus’ time. They often went on for several days, even a full week. During this time there was food, feasting, family, fellowship, and did I mention food? Lots of it, and wine, too! It was a time of satiation. But eventually this time of feasting ended and by then, people were filled. They’d had enough food for a while and so subsequent fasting made sense; it seemed natural. What does this teach us and why does Jesus use this image regarding fasting?
Simply put, if you want to be able 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 and His Body and Blood, and to rejoice with Him exceedingly. When this happens we are equipped to fast authentically.
At some point the “groom is taken away” 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 we go through a difficult time during which God seems distant, or we struggle with temptation. At times like that, a fast of sorts is before us. But we are able to withstand it and are spiritually equipped to do so because we have been to the wedding feast and feasted with the Groom. Having done this, we are less enamored of the world and its charms; we are filled with Christ and 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 many people 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 not evangelized. They know about Jesus, but they don’t know Him. To them, the liturgy can be, and often is, a lifeless ritual to be endured rather than an encounter with Jesus Christ. Instead of being a wedding feast, the Mass is more like a visit to the doctor. For them, the majority of the Mass is a “waiting room” experience. Waiting, waiting, and then finally it’s up to get the medicine (Holy Communion), which is great because that means the Mass is almost over!
For many, personal prayer isn’t much better. It’s just another ritual: say some prayers and be done with it. God is really more of a stranger. 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, and their pride seems to provide evidence of this. The only way to fast in a truly spiritual way is to have already been to the wedding feast and feasted with Jesus, the great bridegroom of the Church. Then, having been filled with every good and perfect gift, true fasting can begin.
So what is true fasting? It is fasting that no longer needs much of what the world offers because 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 gospel 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, though, if we have really met the Lord and been satisfied by Him. Only then can true fasting ensue. As you may expect, meeting Jesus is more than a one-time event. It is a gradual, deepening awareness of Him and of His power in our life and in the liturgy. Make sure you don’t miss the wedding feast; it is the key to the truest fasting of all.