Friday, March 11, 2011

Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving

My Dear Friends in Christ

Grace and Peace in God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit be with you as we begin the Lenten Fast. We begin today by focusing on fasting. Our readings tell us what value fasting has for us. The first reading talked about it in the context of the reconciling nature of fasting. The Prophet Joel says, “Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God.” Jesus speaks of fasting as something that we should do in secret. We are to wash our face and anoint our head. Fasting is one of the central penitential practices of the Catholic Church, certainly something that is closely associated with our tradition.

Once I was visiting with a deacon candidate who said that he was pondering how much sense the church year makes. He said that, in winter, we tend to add a few pounds and we need a time in the church year to diet to lose those pounds, and that is what Lent is all about. I told him that he might want to rethink that analysis. The reason we fast during Lent is not to lose weight so we’ll look good in a swimsuit. That’s the reason we diet. Dieting is not the same thing as fasting. One goes on a diet in order to have a healthier, better looking body. One fasts in order to have a healthier, better looking spirit. We fast to remind ourselves that the one thing that we cannot do without, the one thing that would stop our existence is the absence of God. We can fast from facebook, from the computer in general, from swearing, from alcohol, and even from something that we know we need like food. But we cannot make it a single day without God.

One of the things Fr. Hertges and I have learned at our leadership training course, however, is you can’t just fast from something without replacing it. Otherwise, you just sit around and think about what you’re trying to fast from. The church offers two ideas that can fill our time in the wake of fasting; prayer and almsgiving. We can use the time we gain from fasting to spend more time in prayer or, if we do enough prayer, to spend time doing some charitable act for someone else.

Ultimately, Lent is meant to offer a change of heart. That’s why Jesus encourages us to keep these acts of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to ourselves. They aren’t meant to be used to impress people. They’re meant to live out the message of St. Paul from the second reading, “Working together, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says: In an acceptable time I heard you, and on the day of salvation I helped you. Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”