Today is, of course, Ash Wednesday on which we begin the holy season of Lent. This past Sunday I was struck by the reminders that this is a day of fasting and abstinence, and at the same time by how little was said of the meaning of fasting.
Today the Church invites us to spend the coming weeks in prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We are asked to deny ourselves of legitimate pleasures in the weeks leading up to Easter. Self-denial is certainly a hard sell in our consumerist culture. We are accustomed to fulfilling our every whim, whether it be for food or entertainment, not to mention the constant presence of illicit pleasures like excessive alcohol, the forthcoming legalization of marijuana, or casual sex. In this climate the Church’s call to take up the cross and deny yourself daily to follow Jesus is understandably hard to hear.
This also indicates that we cannot just assume that it is self-evident that the Christian should do these things. We may have a vague sense that we should avoid capricious indulgences that are widely recognized as immoral, but why should we also give up the legitimate pleasures in life? Why should we put ourselves out in this way? That is surely a counter-cultural practice, and one might be forgiven for wondering if it is merely a carryover from a past age that comforted people who had to go without, by conveniently suggesting it was pious to do so. What is needed to make sense of this seems to be a theology of Lent.
Lent is, at its root, an invitation to every Christian to unite him or herself more deeply with Jesus, specifically to unite with him in the forty days of fasting in the desert that he practiced in preparation for his public ministry. The temptations of Christ are described in all three synoptic gospels. It is striking that it occurs immediately after his baptism (although Mathew gives the genealogy of Jesus between the baptism and the fast). Once Jesus is baptized, all three accounts say that the Spirit “drove” him into the wilderness. This forty days of fasting culminates in the temptations.
The Fathers of Church see this episode in Christ’s life as recalling the forty day fasts of Moses and Elias. The fast of Moses culminated in receiving the Ten Commandments, while that of Elias gave rise to prophecy. In a similar way, Jesus’ fast ushers in the age of the New Law. In his Against Heresies St. Irenaeus reflects on the temptations of Christ at length. While also noting that Christ’s forty day fast is reminiscent of the fasts of Moses and Elias, his emphasis is on seeing Christ as the new Adam. Where Adam was tempted by Satan and fell, Christ is tempted by Satan and emerges victorious.
St. Irenaeus notes that Christ fasted for two reasons. His hunger after forty days of fasting shows that he was truly human, for all of us hunger and suffer when we fast. Secondly, it gives Satan the opportunity to tempt him. He ties these temptations into the theme of Jesus as the new Adam by pointing out that just as Adam fell by being tempted through food, Jesus is taunted through an appeal to food when he refuses to turn stones into bread. “The corruption of man, therefore, which occurred in paradise by both [of our first parents] eating, was done away with by [the Lord’s] want of food in this world.” In the second temptation Satan has appeal to scripture noting that it says the angels have charge of him, and that he should therefore be able to throw himself down the cliff without worry. Christ’s response is also scriptural, since he is human he should not “tempt God”. Accordingly, St. Irenaeus notes that the pride of reason found in the serpent is destroyed by the Jesus’ humility. Jesus replies to the third temptation, to fall down and worship his tempter, by identifying him as Satan and ordering him away. Throughout these temptations St. Irenaeus sees that Satan is defeated by Christ through an appeal to the law, this same law that our first parents had transgressed in falling to the serpent’s temptations.
St. Irenaeus’ treatment of Christ’s temptations situates his action in the context of a grand supernatural struggle that underpins all of history, from Adam’s fall to today. In this battle Jesus’ response brings victory over Satan deciding in a definitive way for God and ushering in the kingdom of God in his own person. Our means for joining ourselves in this victory are the age old ones of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
These means are powerfully explained by St. Augustine in his Sermons on Lent. Throughout these Sermons Augustine emphasizes that the Lenten practices that unite us to Christ crucified are simply an intensification of what should be found in the normal Christian life. “In fact, the Christian ought to be suspended constantly on this cross through his entire life, passed as it is in the midst of temptation.” We are invited to a cross not of forty days, but of our whole life. (Sermon, 205)
He also insists that it does no good to give up things in Lent, but replace them by indulging in other luxuries that are extraordinary. If we give up meat on Friday only to have fish at the best restaurant in town of forego wine only to indulge in exotic liquors we usually wouldn’t drink, then we simply changing rather than eliminating the pleasures in question. If we do this we are missing the point and value of the exercise.
Genuine fasting involves giving up legitimate pleasures. It is not a question of things that are prohibited, in which we should never indulge. Rather, fasting involves a free decision to abstain from what is licit and in itself good. Why would we do this? The most obvious reason is that if one never deliberately refrains from things that are permitted, we develop a habit of self-indulgence. The practice of fasting and moderate mortification of the body trains our will to say no to things that we want. This will make it all the easier to say no to ourselves when we are tempted by something sinful. If we always enjoy the legitimate luxuries that present themselves, how can we expect to suddenly have the fortitude to turn away from the illicit ones that cross our path? Fasting is a particularly appropriate form of penance as in denying legitimate food, we symbolically sseparate ourselves from that fault of original sin at the root of our illicit desires that has its source in Adam and Eve’s indulgence in the food that was forbidden.
This fasting is integrally related to almsgiving and prayer. As we have said when we fast and abstain from legitimate goods, this should not lead us to spend on other luxuries. Rather, this savings should be given to help those who are in need. Assistance to the poor is a grave obligation. As St. Augustine argues, a person who doesn’t help the poor, but expects a generous response from God is like a farmer who sows no seed but expects a bountiful harvest. In the person of the poor we are, in fact, feeding Christ, who no longer has any hunger or need. “Therefore, let us not spurn our God who is needy in His poor, so that we in our need may be filled in Him who is rich.” (Sermon, 206) St. Augustine also points out that forgiveness is itself a form of almsgiving. Servants can be reconciled with one another, and thus they too can practice a form of almsgiving in which no one is poor. Even the person without any possessions can give this alms of forgiveness.
This suggests that the Lenten fast should also give rise to prayer. We are, after all, not merely to fast from food but also from “strife and discord”. As St. Leo the Great says:
Enter then with pious devotion upon these holy days of Lent; and prepare for yourselves the works of mercy, that you may merit the Divine Mercy. Extinguish the fires of anger, wipe away all hate . . . give way to each other in the simplicity of true humility.” Let offenses be forgiven. Let harshness be changed to mildness, disdain to gentleness, discord into peace . . . so that our fasting may be pleasing to God.
True fasting naturally gives birth to prayer. In building the virtues that are cultivated in a spirit of penance through self-denial and mortification we put ourselves in a situation that allows for prayer. We are better able to implore mercy from God when we have been merciful to our neighbors and our intention will be pure when our mind is not enslaved to desires for food and pleasure.
Fasting and almsgiving frees us from the worst parts of ourselves, leaving us open to God. “Just as we are rendered fit for prayer by almsdeeds and fasting, so our prayer itself gives alms when it is directed and poured forth not only for friends but for enemies as well and when it refrains from anger, hatred, and harmful vices.” (Sermon, 207)
This type of fasting offers “feasts for the soul” (Sermon, 210, 3) “For Prayer, supported as it were, on the wings of the virtues, speeds upwards and is easily borne into heaven wither Christ, our peace, has preceded.” (Sermon, 206)