"Why do we fast, and you do not see it? Afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?" Lo, on your fast day, you carry out your own pursuits and drive all your laborers." Isaiah 58:3
Now that we have entered the Lenten season, we turn our attention to traditional Lenten practices and try to understand them in ways that make sense to us. One such practice is fasting. Many religious traditions value fasting. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Catholic Church has a long history of asking its faithful to fast, especially during the Lenten season. Many of us who take our Catholic faith seriously try to find good ways to fast and to allow fasting to renew us in some way or another. This is especially challenging for us because we live in a culture that no longer values these ancient practices. Some of us also have unpleasant memories of when we or our parents fasted before the Second Vatican Council reforms. These memories may keep us from the benefits of authentic Catholic fasting.
When I was a smoker, I used to give up cigarettes for the whole of lent, and I thought I was making a great sacrifice. It was not unusual to hear people say that they were giving up candy for lent. Then we began to believe that fasting had more to do with giving up pleasures, legitimate pleasures to be sure, than anything else. So, when life did not become better, according to our way of seeing things, we would cry out: "Why do we fast, and you do not see it? Afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?"
Jesus was not a "traditionalist" when it came to fasting. Beginning with the Gospel Reading on Ash Wednesday, Jesus puts a context to fasting. It is the same context that we see so beautifully described in the first reading for today’s Mass: fasting is undertaken for the sake of right relationships and solidarity with those who suffer unjustly in this world. Fasting can easily lend itself to hypocrisy. When hypocrisy becomes a way of life, then no amount of fasting will wash away our guilt.
Our political culture is particularly susceptible to hypocrisy. Those who hold public trust will sometimes say one thing and do another, live a public life of rectitude and a private life of wrongdoing. It becomes easy for us to have a public face and private life. That is what the Prophet Isaiah was speaking about in our first reading. We can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking, if these famous people do this, why is it wrong for me to do the same thing?
Fasting is based upon the most fundamental foundation of our Catholic faith, the mystery of what is called "Kenosis," self-emptying, the willingness to let go even of what is good and wonderful for the sake of redemptive Love. That is what the Son of God did when he took the form of a slave and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. This is the kind of "fasting" that God will take notice of. This is why God raised Jesus from the dead and gave him the name that is above every name, on earth and in heaven. This kind of "fasting" is what gets God’s attention.
To be efficacious, our fasting needs to lead us from those things that are unjust and unacceptable to what is right and just in our society. That is why the fast of such great leaders as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez became so efficacious. That is why we should not give up on fasting. We should not give up on a life that gives us the reason to fast. When we fast as Jesus fasted, God will surely hear us!
Fr. Clemente Barron, C.P. is a member of the General Council of the Passionist Congregation and is stationed in Rome.