Viewpoint The practice of Lenten fasting has many dimensions

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Fasting is one of the practices associated traditionally with the season of Lent-a practice which has a rich body of meanings. I suggest there are seven values to be derived from fasting.

The first value of fasting is learning reverence for food. We live in a consumer society where food is available in abundance and is habitually wasted. Food is viewed as purely functional; rarely do we think of food as a precious gift from God.

Fasting gives us the occasion to interrupt our normal consumerist attitudes regarding food, and allows us to grow in reverence for it.

The second value of fasting is that it provides us a means of assisting the hungry poor. The scriptures are full of admonitions about sharing food with others. Indeed, the extent to which we share our food is one of the criteria by which God will judge us ultimately. 

There are numerous ways in which we can fast for charitable purposes during Lent. We can shop more economically so that we may contribute more to charity. We can eat more sparingly and put what we save aside to assist others.

The third value of fasting is in helping us grow in humility. Humility means a realistic, clear-sighted, and sober sense of ourselves and our place in the world.

To be humble is to have a sense of our own limitations. We become more aware of our mortality and the fact that we must die. We realize that our lives are fragile.

There are few things that make us more aware of our limitations, our mortality, and our dependence on others than being hungry. Hunger cuts us down to size and deflates our egos.

The fourth value associated with fasting is that it teaches us discipline.  Discipline means self-restraint and appropriate self-restriction – all marks of the mature person. Their opposites are self-indulgence, the inability to control ourselves, and the tendency to live with restraint. 

Fasting involves external discipline teaching us internal discipline. The practice of fasting can have the inner effect of making us more genuine and authentic disciples of Christ.

The fifth value of fasting is that we undertake the practice in solidarity with the poor. This means recognizing that as long as there are poor people in the world, it is unseemly that we should eat luxuriously.

We are called to live more simply, more sparingly, and to avoid waste and self-indulgence in a spirit of union with those who have little. As long as there is hunger in the world, a permanent element of fasting should characterize our hunger.

The sixth value of fasting – especially on Good Friday, when all Catholics are required to fast – is to express solidarity with Jesus on the day of his death. On the day of Christ's trial, suffering, and death, Christians are called to live in a sober way, avoiding entertainments and distracting activities. As Christ suffers on the Cross on Good Friday, Christians are called to observe that day with a firm gaze on Christ's saving action.

Finally, we fast in preparation for the return of Christ in glory. We are reminded that we can never be satisfied by ordinary food, food that satisfies only momentarily but then perishes. We do not live by bread alone. What we await is the food of heaven, the food of God's heavenly banquet which will not perish but give life eternal. Until then, we will always be hungry. 

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