“Jesus, why do your disciples not fast?” This is a very good question Jesus is asked in Mark’s Gospel. Fasting—abstaining from food or some legitimate pleasure for a spiritual benefit—was a practice well established in the Jewish tradition. The Pharisees followed it; so did the disciples of John the Baptist. And Jesus’ own disciples would also continue that same spiritual discipline. As Christ says in the Gospel:
As long as they have the bridegroom with them [the disciples] cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.
The bridegroom being “taken away from them” is a reference Jesus makes to His own death and subsequent resurrection. Now until that happens, of course, the disciples will not fast; they will rejoice and celebrate in the presence of Christ. But after the death and resurrection of Jesus, after His ascension into heaven, the time for fasting will come.
For centuries now the Church has continued to follow the spiritual practice of fasting. Jesus Himself modeled this for us in the Gospels; for forty days and forty nights He fasted in the desert. All of the saints fasted in one way or another. Many of you know much better than I do about the days when abstinence from meat on all Fridays throughout the year, and fasting on all the days of Lent, was a routine part of the Catholic mindset. And let’s be honest, maybe it was too routine.
The Second Vatican Council sought to purify our practice of fasting and abstinence, to help us better understand the reasons we deny ourselves to begin with. As you know, the canonical requirements of abstaining from meat every Friday and fasting on all the days of Lent were dispensed with, and we were encouraged, instead, to embrace fasting and self denial voluntarily. Many people still do that.
The American bishops at the time encouraged the faithful to fast: “as a gesture of solidarity with the passion of Christ, as an act of fidelity to the Christian past, and to help ‘preserve a saving and necessary difference from the spirit of the world.’”
—“Why Catholics Fast,”
But unfortunately today, I think most of us would admit, about the only thing many people fast from is fasting itself! What has happened to this spiritual discipline that has been an integral part of our heritage as Catholics since the time of Christ? Could we not ask the same question that Jesus is asked in the Gospel: “Jesus, why do your disciples not fast?”
With Lent only just a few short days away, I would like to offer briefly three of the more practical and valuable reasons why fasting and self denial are essential and indispensable aspects of our spiritual lives as Christians.
Firstly, as the saints and spiritual writers have always pointed out, denial of self and fasting creates a void in our lives, and God is then able to fill that void with Himself.
When we choose not to eat the food that we enjoy or listen to the music we like, then we experience a literal hunger or a silence within. This points us to the reality that—in the deepest part of ourselves—we hunger and thirst for the living God. Fasting opens us up to this deeper encounter with God, who alone can fill our every need.
The second reason why the disciples of Jesus fast is because denying ourselves legitimate pleasures, choosing to abstain from the things that are a good for us, ultimately gives us strength to deny those pleasures that are not good, the ones that are sinful.
It is when I am able to deny myself that huge piece of chocolate cake that I simply cannot wait to get my hands on that I then have the strength to not say that unkind word to that person who is really getting on my nerves.
I have the ability to deny that opportunity to gossip, to reject that impure thought or that image that pops up on the computer screen because I have already been strengthened in denying myself the good pleasures that I could have had all along. Fasting and self-denial strengthen our will and help us to follow Christ more faithfully, and even more joyfully, in the everyday decisions and difficulties of life.
The final and most important reason for the spiritual discipline of fasting and self-denial is that it brings us into a more intimate union with the person and the sufferings of Jesus Christ, the one whose ultimate sacrifice and self-denial won for us eternal life.
St. Paul prays, in his letter to the Philippians:
That I may know [Christ] and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
This is a form of self-denial that I believe most people practice everyday, whether they know it or not. We all have our crosses. Every single one of us has to face difficulties and struggles in the spiritual life and in our faith.
It may be many small crosses, those minor annoyances that stretch out our patience and really test our faith. Perhaps it is a much larger cross: the death of a loved one, difficulties in marriage or in the family, it might be an addiction, or an illness that seemed to come from nowhere.
All of us experience the cross. But it is our choice to take up that cross and follow Christ. One of the most challenging commands of Jesus is found in the Gospel when He says to the disciples:
Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.
—Matthew 16:24 (Mark 8:34, Luke 14:27)
Christ is not trying to be exclusive or elite here; He is simply stating the fact that we cannot follow Him if we are unwilling to walk the path He walked; that path was very often one of self-denial and suffering.
The great Irish missionary, Amy Carmichael, in her poem, “Hast thou no scar?” sums up this point completely. In that poem, the speaker is Christ and He asks:
Hast thou no scar?
No hidden scar on foot, or side, or hand?
I hear Thee sung as mighty in the land,
I hear them hail thy bright ascendant star,
Hast thou no scar?
Hast thou no wound?
Yet I was wounded by the archers, spent,
Leaned me against a tree to die; and rent
By ravening beasts that compassed me, I swooned:
Hast thou no wound?
No wound? No scar?
Yet, as the Master shall the servant be,
And pierced are the feet that follow Me;
But thine are whole: can he have followed far
Who has nor wound nor scar?
—Amy Carmichael, Toward Jerusalem
Lent is only a few short days away, and Christ is calling each of us into a deeper relationship with Him, asking us to draw closer to Him than ever in this season of grace. Today we simply pray:
Lord Jesus, help us to practice fasting and self-denial, to open up a void in our lives that only You can fill. Give us strength in denying the legitimate pleasures of life that we may be able to say "no" to the things that harm us. And give us the courage to deny ourselves this Lent, to take up our cross and follow You.