Tag Archives: fasting

The Liberating Power of Fasting – March 6, 2017

“Do you wish your prayer to reach God? Give it two wings, fasting and almsgiving.”
-St. Augustine, Discourse on the Psalms

“What happened to fast and abstinence in the Church in the United States?” This was the question Pope John Paul II asked Msgr. Charles M. Murphy, the former Dean of the Pontifical North American College, in a conversation they had in Rome in 1980. Pope John Paul perceived what is readily apparent to us still today, the seeming collapse of the practice of fasting in the day-to-day lives of Catholics. This question is particularly relevant now in the midst of Lent as the Church unites herself “to the mystery of Jesus in desert.” (CCC 540) The Bible tells us that Jesus “fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards He was hungry.” (Mt. 4:2) If we are to unite ourselves more closely with Christ, we need to rediscover this holy practice of fasting.

The Catechism lists fasting as one of the three pillars of penance in the Christian life. Fasting, prayer and almsgiving express our conversion, respectively towards oneself, God, and neighbor. (CCC 1434) Fasting is a critical part of our metanoia, our turning away from sin. We are in constant need of this conversion towards God. It was when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit that Original Sin and concupiscence entered our human nature. Since then, as St. Paul eloquently wrote, “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh.” (Gal. 5:17) This is our human predicament. The question we must ask ourselves is: Do our bodily desires and instincts rule our spirit, or does our spirit control our bodies? The mortification of the flesh, through fasting, offers a sort of “liberation of man” against this “wound inflicted on the dignity of our nature by intemperance.” (Paentiemini, II) Through fasting, we can cultivate this cardinal virtue of temperance, as moderation and self-control tame the unruliness of the flesh.

In the Old Testament, Nineveh turned away from their sins. The wickedness of the city had reached a point that God sent the prophet Jonah to warn them that in “forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.” (Jnh. 3:4) However, the people of Nineveh believed Jonah and the words of God, so “they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.” God reacted by not carrying out His threat against them. God showed Himself to be “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (Jnh. 4:2) It is an example for us. By fasting, we can demonstrate our humility before God by repenting of our sins and asking forgiveness. As the story of Nineveh shows, God readily accepts this act of contrition.

Jesus is our example par excellence on the vital spiritual importance of fasting. Scripture tells us that before He began His public ministry, He was “led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” (Mt. 4:1) Just as the first Adam was tempted by the serpent and failed by eating the fruit, so the second Adam, Jesus, was tempted by Satan, and yet resisted him by not eating. Satan tempted Jesus to break His fast by turning stones into loaves of bread, at which Jesus countered him, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” Jesus’ fast spiritually prepared His humanity to confront and resist the devil. This is reminiscent of the disciples, who were unable to cast out a demon from a boy. Jesus rebuked them for their lack of faith, and then, exorcised the demon. Later, when the disciples asked Jesus why they could not cast it out, He replied, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.” (Mk. 9:29) Prayer and fasting are fundamental tools we have to overcome the devil and his minions, and temptation. Fasting is a powerful weapon.

This self-denial and mortification, as expressed in fasting, is also efficacious for the conversion of others. Sacrifice and prayer are the vicarious payment we make towards the redemption of another. It is the required “money,” if you will, offered on behalf of their “debt.” St. Paul captured this eloquently when he wrote, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body.” (Col. 1:24) This remains the same for us. We know that our love and intercessory sacrifices for others will cover a multitude of sins. (Jas. 5:20)

Intercessory prayer and fasting is exactly the message of Fatima as well. Our Lady of Fatima said, “Pray, pray very much, and make sacrifices for sinners; for many souls go to hell, because there are none to sacrifice themselves and to pray for them.” Mary revealed that our prayers and sacrifices are truly efficacious reparations, in which we can even positively affect someone’s eternal destiny. This Lent is the perfect opportunity for us to heed her words, especially this year, the 100th anniversary of the Fatima apparitions. Heaven is waiting for our daily prayers, sacrifices, and fasts.

As Christians, we need to re-embrace this pillar of our faith and practice regularly the discipline of fasting. It is a transformational habit that would enliven the modern Church, liberate us from our intemperate desires, and bring us into a closer divine intimacy with God. It also draws us nearer to the hungry and the poor, in line with the Beatitudes of Jesus. Although Jesus forbade His disciples from fasting while He, the divine Bridegroom, was still here, He did exhort future generations, and for that matter, us, that once the Bridegroom was gone, “then they will fast.” (Mt. 9:15) Some 2,000 years later, we continue our fast, at the behest of Jesus’ Good News, “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (Mt. 4:17)

Of course, fasting is not easy. It is a discipline that we must train our bodies to handle. We can accommodate fasting to our life situation. The important point is that we fast in some fashion, in union with the Church, particularly on Fridays in remembrance of Christ’s Passion, whether just giving up meat, or strictly on bread and water, or somewhere in between the two. The ancient ascetic monks perfected the discipline of fasting in the desert. Yet, we can bring fasting into the hustle and bustle of our lives, and families, and homes, and Churches, to form an oasis of sanctity in our modern world. Let us renew our faith – and fasting – this Lent, and beyond.

The Didache, The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles – 25 January 2016

Wouldn’t it be great to have a snapshot into the life of the early Church to see what they believed and taught and practiced on a day-to-day basis? Of course, we have the New Testament, which is divinely-inspired, and tells us about the life of Jesus Christ and the faith of the first Christian communities. Its 27 books, and eight (possibly nine, depending on if you think St.Paul, or a disciple of St.Paul, wrote the letter to the Hebrews.) authors – including the Apostles St.Matthew, St.John, St.James, St.Peter, St.Jude, and disciples St.Mark, St.Luke, and St.Paul – is the scriptural foundation of all Christian canonical beliefs. All of the books were written in the first century by eye-witnesses to Jesus, or by the first disciples of the Apostles. Aside from being the Word of God, these are incredibly reliable historical documents, reflecting direct contact with the person of Jesus and written relatively soon after. Yet, there are also many extra-biblical sources and letters, from the first century and early second century, that describe the life, belief and practices of the early Church. These are the writings of the early Church Fathers, in particular, the Apostolic Church Fathers, such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna. They are considered “Apostolic” because they had direct contact with the Apostles themselves, thus making their work fascinating and of utmost importance (even though they were not ultimately included within the canon of Church Scripture).

One such document is called “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” or known simply as “The Didache.” It is one of the earliest known Christian writings, even possibly predating some of the New Testament books. It is generally agreed to have been written between 50-120 AD, well within the lifetime of some of the Apostles and first disciples. Some of the early Christians even considered it an inspired book, although again it was ultimately not included in the canon. The Didache is generally divided into four different sections concerning: (1) a moral catechesis (ie, “The Way of Life” vs. “The Way of Death”), (2) liturgical instruction, (3) a Church manual for various ecclesiastical and community norms, (4) and a brief eschatology of the parousia (ie, the second coming of Christ). One of the most profound aspects of the early Church Fathers’ writings is that they are thoroughly sacramental in nature, that is, they speak explicitly of the sacraments of the Church. Simply, from an apologetics point of view, they demonstrate that the sacraments and doctrines of the Catholic Church are not something contrived or incrementally slipped into Christianity over the centuries. They are not paganism, or a so-called Roman mystery religion. Christianity holds all of that in contempt as idolatry and blasphemy. Rather, the sacraments, the prayers, the Church, they were all there from the beginning. This is also true in The Didache. The tracts of the Didache, as are all the early Church Fathers’ writings, are decisively Catholic. [of note: The Way of Life specifically mentions not to commit “abortion, or infanticide,” which is probably the earliest known Christian writing explicitly condemning abortion and infanticide. Later, it references The Way of Death, in which they “murder their infants, and deface the image of God.”]

The Didache speaks matter-of-factly about Baptism, going to Church on Sundays, receiving the Eucharist, and making a general confession of sins. For example, as part of “The Way of Life,” the author says “In church, make confession of your faults, and do not come to your prayers with a bad conscience.” Later, he instructs:

“Assemble on the Lord’s Day, and break bread and offer the Eucharist; but first make confession of your faults, so that your sacrifice may be a pure one. Anyone who has a difference with his fellow is not to take part with you until they have been reconciled, so as to avoid any profanation of your sacrifice. For this is the offering of which the Lord has said, Everywhere and always bring me a sacrifice that is undefiled, for I am a great king, says the Lord, and my name is the wonder of nations.”

In the Church manual section, he similarly states, “No one is to eat or drink of your Eucharist but those who have been baptized in the Name of the Lord; for the Lord’s own saying applies here, ‘Give not that which is holy unto dogs.’” The manual gives in-depth instruction of the eucharistic prayers to say over the chalice and over the broken bread, offering us a glimpse into the first century Mass. They are to pray, “Thou, O Almighty Lord, hast created all things for thine own Name’s sake; to all men thou hast given meat and drink to enjoy, that they may give thanks to thee, but to us thou hast graciously given spiritual meat and drink, together with life eternal, through thy Servant. Especially, and above all, do we give thanks to thee for the mightiness of thy power.” The manual similarly gives precise details about how to go about baptizing people saying, “..immerse in running water ‘In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’” It offers a similar prescription for standing water, or simply pouring water over the person’s head. The manual delves also into fasting, instructing people to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, much like the modern tradition, and to pray the Our Father three times every day.

And, how should this affect us? These brief snippets offer us glimpses, from outside the New Testament (i.e., accepted Scripture), into the hearts and minds of the first Christians. They lived a sacramental life in toto. Their daily lives were rooted in Baptism, Confession, the Eucharist, Sunday worship, fasting, and prayer. This is what they called The Way of Life. The Way of Life involves modeling our lives after Christ, that is, among many other things, loving our enemies, living a moral life, being meek and compassionate. Moreover, it instructs us, “Accept as good whatever experience comes your way, in the knowledge that nothing can happen without God.” We are to live out our Christian vocations within our ordinary circumstances and trials of each day, with Christ as our “spiritual meat and drink, together with life eternal.” As some have argued, The Didache could be a form of vade mecum, a small handbook that Christians would have carried about with themselves. It spoke to them of how they should live their lives, conduct themselves and embrace the sacramental life. And so it remains with us!