The Lenten Fast
There are some in the Church who would opine that one need not necessarily give something up during Lent, but instead it may be beneficial to add something – usually it is recommended to add either some act of charity for the poor (almsgiving) or to take more time for reading the Bible (prayer). It seems that such persons have scarcely realized that the practices of Lent are three: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. It will not do simply to practice one of the three, leaving the others aside.
Indeed, it needs be stressed that, of the three practices, fasting is the most important to consider – for it is the fast which most characterizes the season of Lent. Moreover, while the giving of alms and prayer are necessary always, the Lenten Fast is practiced only for these forty days: How great a folly it would be to miss it!
The purpose of the Fast
St. Thomas Aquinas enumerates three ends or goals to which fasting is directed: “Fasting is practiced for a threefold purpose. First, in order to bridle the lusts of the flesh, wherefore the Apostle says (2 Corinthians 6:5-6): "In fasting, in chastity," since fasting is the guardian of chastity. For, according to Jerome [Contra Jov. ii.] "Venus is cold when Ceres and Bacchus are not there," that is to say, lust is cooled by abstinence in meat and drink. Secondly, we have recourse to fasting in order that the mind may arise more freely to the contemplation of heavenly things: hence it is related (Daniel 10) of Daniel that he received a revelation from God after fasting for three weeks. Thirdly, in order to satisfy for sins: wherefore it is written (Joel 2:12): "Be converted to Me with all your heart, in fasting and in weeping and in mourning." The same is declared by Augustine in a sermon (De orat. et Jejun. [Serm. lxxii (ccxxx, de Tempore)]): "Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one's flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, kindles the true light of chastity."” (ST II-II, q.147, a.1)
The attainment of three goods – the prevention of sin, the direction of the mind to spiritual realities, and the atonement for sin – is the principle means by which the Lenten Fast prepares the Christian soul for the Easter Mystery. Freed from sin (both its act and its penalty) and raised to the contemplation of spiritual things, the soul is thus suited to enter into the dying and rising of Christ.
The Fast is the foundation of the other Lenten practices
Certainly, prayer and almsgiving are equally essential elements of the Lenten discipline – without prayer and almsgiving, the Fast would bear no fruit and the soul would be in a sorry state for the Easter reception of her Lord. Nevertheless, we must assert that the Fast is the foundation of the other practices – such that, though they are equally essential, the Fast has a certain priority of order over the other two.
It seems that, so far as the body is able, it must participate in the prayer of the soul. Indeed, we may assert that prayer which is solely from the soul – and in no way involving the body – is deficient prayer. What can we mean by this? Certainly, we assert that mental prayer is the highest form of prayer; and intellectual visions (which surpass not only the bodily senses, but even the imagination) are among the greatest of spiritual gifts. Thus, it is clear that, in the highest order of prayer, the soul is somewhat removed from the body and separated from the senses – for this reason, St. Paul knew not whether he was in his body or out during the gift of spiritual rapture.
Still, even in the heights of ecstatic prayer, the body is not utterly left behind – for the soul does not, in fact, leave the body. Rather, the body is overwhelmed by the graces of God and, being not yet glorified, it cannot enter into the highest realms of prayer. Still, when the resurrection dawns, these mortal bodies will put on immortality and, on that day, they will share in the glories of prayer – the beatific vision of our Great God. This truth alone – I mean, the general resurrection – is enough to prove that the spiritual growth of the soul cannot be gained without the body.
But, when some advocate that we might pray without fasting, these persons are indeed separating soul from body, and doing great harm to the spiritual life. No, indeed, the body must be involved in the prayer of the soul: either through kneeling, or standing, or the raising of the hands, etc. And, during the season of Lent (when fasting is a matter of precept), the body “prays” with the soul through the Fast. Fasting and mortification are characteristic of true Lenten prayer – since it is by these means that the body and soul enter together into the spiritual combat.
And what of almsgiving? Here, the words of Dom Gueranger: “The rich man should show the poor, whose whole year is a fast, that there is a time when even he has his self-imposed privations. The faithful observance of Lent naturally produces a saving; let that saving be given to Lazarus. Nothing, surely, could be more opposed to the spirit of this holy season, than keeping up a table as richly and delicately provided as at other periods of the year, when God permits us to use all the comforts compatible with the means He has given us. But how thoroughly Christian is it that, during these days of penance and charity, the life of the poor man should be made more comfortable, in proportion as that of the rich shares in the hardships and privations of his suffering brethren throughout the world! Poor and rich would then present themselves, with all the beauty of fraternal love upon them, at the divine Banquet of the Paschal feast, to which our risen Jesus will invite us after these forty days are over.”
The Lenten giving of alms is founded upon the surplus gained from the Fast. In like manner, we may say that other works of charity are enabled through the time and energy saved by ceasing to chase after fleshly delights.
We fast in imitation of our Savior
Finally, and most importantly, we emphasize that we must fast because Jesus himself fasted. If he became hungry out of love for us, shall we not become hungry for love of him? Christ goes before us, and he beckons us to join him in his Lenten Fast.
The holy abbot, Prosper Gueranger: “And now, let us look at the divine object that is before us. It is our Emmanuel; the same Jesus, but not under the form of the sweet Babe whom we adored in His crib. He has grown to the foulness of the age of man, and wears the semblance of a sinner, trembling and humbling Himself before the sovereign Majesty of His Father whom we have offended, and to whom He now offers Himself as the Victim of propitiation. He loves us with a brother's love; and seeing that the season for doing penance has begun, He comes to cheer us on by His presence and His own example. We are going to spend forty days in fasting and abstinence: Jesus, who is innocence itself, goes through the same penance. We have separated ourselves, for a time, from the pleasures and vanities of the world: Jesus withdraws from the company and sight of men. We intend to assist at the divine services more assiduously, and pray more fervently, than at other times: Jesus spends forty days and forty nights in praying, like the humblest suppliant; and all this for us. We are going to think over our past sins, and bewail them in bitter grief: Jesus suffers for them and weeps over them in the silence of the desert, as though He Himself had committed them.
No sooner had He received baptism from the hands of St. John, than the Holy Ghost led Him to the desert. The time had come for showing Himself to the world; He would begin by teaching us a lesson of immense importance. He leaves the saintly Precursor and the admiring multitude, that had seen the divine Spirit descend upon Him, and heard the Father's voice proclaiming Him to be His beloved Son; He leaves them and goes into the desert. Not far from the Jordan there rises a rugged mountain, which has received, in after ages, the name of Quarantana. It commands a new of the fertile plain of Jericho, the Jordan, and the Dead Sea. It is within a cave of this wild rock that the Son of God now enters, His only companions being the dumb animals who have chosen this same for their own shelter. He has no food wherewith to satisfy the pangs of hunger; the barren rock can yield Him no drink; His only bed must be of stone. Here He is to spend forty days; after which, He will permit the angels to visit Him and bring Him food.
Thus does our Saviour go before us on the holy path of Lent. He has borne all its fatigues and hardships, that so we, when called upon to tread the narrow way of our lenten penance, might have His example wherewith to silence the excuses, and sophisms, and repugnances, of self-love and pride. Let us not harden our hearts to this invitation, lest there be fulfilled in us the terrible threat contained in those other words of our Redeemer: 'Unless you shall do penance, you shall perish.'”