Friday, March 11, 2011

Preparing for the First Sunday of Lent: on Fasting

Prayer for the Friday after Ash Wednesday

Show gracious favour, O Lord we pray, to the works of penance we have begun, that we may have strength to accomplish with sincerity the bodily observances we undertake. Through our Lord.
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The First Sunday in Lent ("A") – March 13, 2011

“WHENEVER YOU FAST...” [Texts: Genesis 2.7-9, 16-18, 25; 3.1-7 [Psalm]; Romans 5.12-19; Matthew 4.1-11]      

      On Ash Wednesday, Christian disciples hear Jesus speak about the great works of religion, almsgiving, prayer and fasting (“whenever you give alms..., whenever you pray..., whenever you fast... ” Matthew 6.1-18]).

      Jesus affirms these ancient practices but gives them a new orientation, one that avoids self-seeking, is rooted in hiddenness and joy and pleases God alone (“your Father who sees in secret will reward you” [6.4, 6, 18]).

     On the First Sunday of Lent, the liturgy regularly depicts the testing of Jesus in the context of an extended fast: “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards He was famished.”

     Fasting is a spiritual discipline by which food is voluntarily given up for a set period of time for a spiritual purpose. For example, Catholics are expected to fast for an hour before receiving Holy Communion as a spiritual preparation for their encounter with the Risen Lord.

     Church teaching spells out the importance of penitential practices as a way for the church, individually and communally, to grow in holiness:

     “All members of the Christian faithful in their own way are bound to do penance in virtue of divine law; in order that all may be joined in a common observance of penance, penitential days are prescribed in which the Christian faithful in a special way pray, exercise works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their responsibilities more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence...” (Code of Canon Law #1249).

     In today's church law, adult Catholics (aged 18-59) are enjoined to fast, which means to eat only one full meal, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Church law also mandates abstinence—not eating flesh meats—by those aged 15-59, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, as well as on Fridays throughout the year.

     In place of abstinence on the Fridays of the year, the bishops of Canada have decreed that Catholics “may substitute special acts of charity or piety on this day”. I suggest that abstaining from meat on Fridays reminds us of Jesus’ loving gift of his life out of love for us and that this should make us reluctant to substitute other acts of charity or piety, especially as it is easy to forget this gospel call to do penance unless we develop regular patterns.

     In the Old Testament fasting took on both public and private forms (e.g. Jeremiah 36.9; Ezra 8.21-23; Nehemiah 1.4-11). Invariably, these fasts were accompanied by prayer and, at times, by the wearing of sackcloth as a sign of repentance and mourning (Daniel 9.3; 1 Maccabees 3.47). The Day of Atonement ritual demanded that one “humble and afflict oneself”, which is how fasting was interpreted (Leviticus 16.31-34).

     The prophets warned about misusing fasting rituals. In Isaiah 58.1-9, the people are castigated for serving their own purposes on the days of their fasts, by oppressing workers, quarrelling and striking with a wicked fist.

     To this kind of behaviour, the prophet contrasts authentic fasting: “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house...” (58.6-7). This is the basis of the Canadian Church's support for Development and Peace projects in the developing world with the money saved from Lenten sacrifices on Solidarity Sunday (April 10th this year).

     Though Jesus was reproached for not fasting during the time of his ministry, he described it as a special time (“during the wedding feast”) and noted that his followers would fast later in memory of his death (Matthew 9.15).

     The Devil's three temptations represent all that can lead one away from God: concern about personal nourishment and well-being and the lure of power and riches in this world (“all these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me”).

     In each case, Jesus resisted the blandishments of the Devil by falling back on his intimate relationship with the heavenly Father. The Word of God, as found in Deuteronomy, served as the textual basis for Jesus’ resistance to each temptation:

     “One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God”…. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”. And “worship the Lord your God, and serve only him”.

     Prayerful reading of Scripture not only serves as a sure guide to God's directions for one's life, but affords the believer resources to overcome every temptation.

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