FASTING is one of those things that comes under the heading of “I know what it means but don’t ask me to explain it!”
In its simplest form the word means reducing or abstaining from food for whatever reason. It is used by the medical profession in various treatments and to prepare the body for certain procedures
In a religious context, fasting has been used penitentially for as long as there have been religions and its purpose has always been both to discipline the body and to improve its health and thereby the health of the soul.
While in general fasting is seen as depriving oneself of food, it is worth looking at chapter 8 of Isaiah for a different view:
6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Compare this passage to Christ’s words in chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel:
35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.
So fasting is to be seen as doing rather than just doing without. Those who argue that Lent is about more than just “giving up something” are correct.
The Church has always set aside periods of penance when she has demanded of us that we do that bit more to discipline ourselves by means of fasting. Within my own lifetime we had Ember Days and Rogation Days as well as the Fridays of Lent and a whole series of Vigils of feasts.
The Ember Days were never abolished but Paul VI left it to the Bishops’ Conferences to “arrange the time and plan of their celebration”. Regrettably (in my view, at least) most Conferences have decided the time will be “never” and the plan will be “not at all”. The result is that fasting as a sacred discipline has fallen into disuse in the Catholic Church with only Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and (the last time I looked but it may have changed!) Christmas Eve remaining as penitential days in the calendar.
(An interesting side effect of this became apparent a few years ago when some of the “modernisers” ended up tying themselves in knots trying to define when Lent began and ended. Several claimed that it ran from the First Sunday to Holy Thursday, though they never satisfactorily explained the exclusion of Good Friday — work it out: five full weeks plus Palm Sunday to Holy Thursday = 40. The four days prior to the First Sunday were supposedly a sort of “preparation”, not Lent proper.
On the other hand if you accept, as the Church did for centuries, that Sunday is never a day of fasting, Lent is six full weeks minus the Sundays which makes 36, plus the four days from Ash Wednesday = 40!)
The significance of the 40 should need no explanation so I won’t give one!
Arguably the modern ( open? optional?) approach to self-denial during the penitential season of Lent means that we can gain greater graces by voluntarily choosing what and how much we deny ourselves or carry out penitential acts (see under ‘Penance’ — coming next!).
As you would expect from a Conservative Catholic I take the view that, human nature being what it is, there is nothing to prevent us from carrying out our private acts of self-denial but that there are great graces to be won from being told what we must and must not do for 40 days and doing it, like it or not!