Recently someone told me that there are two things he’s learned not to do. The first is never to make a New Year’s resolution because he always breaks it the next day. The second is to give up something for Lent. The reason being the same as for New Year’s resolutions - he can’t keep it up. Instead, he said, he tries to do something “positive” for Lent such as smiling at everyone he meets.
There are three problems with this outlook. The first is that this treats Lent as nothing more than a New Year’s resolution. While it is true that you are allowed to “do something” as your lenten penance rather than fasting from something - as per Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution on Penance - the idea is to do something spiritual. One day when I was in high school a group of students was discussing what they were doing for Lent. One student said that he would be doing all his homework. Besides being something that a high school student should already be doing, this act, along with the aforementioned smiling at everyone a person meets, is a perfectly secular New Year’s Resolution. When the Church gives the option to do something for Lent she still means it to be a spiritual act and an act of penance, such as praying the Rosary daily, going to daily Mass, or spending an hour a day in front of the Blessed Sacrament.
The second problem with this outlook is that it ignores the inherent value of fasting. Fasting is an ancient practice, observed both in the Old and New Testaments, and, not least of all, by Christ Himself. On the first Sunday of Lent we heard the story from the Gospel of Matthew of Christ’s forty days in the desert following His baptism. We see in this act of Christ not only an example to follow but a demonstration of the reasons for fasting.
The primary reason for fasting is to help us acquire mastery over our passions, our instincts, and our sins. By denying ourselves a pleasure, we increase our capability to deny our temptations and, ultimately, with the grace of God, to overcome sin. In denying ourselves, we also engage in a small martyrdom, a death to self, which prepares us for the Cross. This is the second purpose of fasting during Lent - to prepare for the suffering of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Sunday. Christ’s forty days in the desert were a preparation both for His imminent public ministry and His ultimate passion, death, and resurrection.
The third reason for fasting is to express an inner conversion. This is the purpose that a penance following confession serves. We have turned away from sin, we have repented and received absolution from our sin, and now we make restitution for our sin through some corporal penance. Lent is a season of conversion and it, therefore, necessarily involves penance. When Christ went into the desert, He had not committed any sin. However, He had just been baptized as an example to us of how to turn away from sin, and He extended this example by embracing a penance - first, through fasting in the desert and, ultimately, on the cross.
Fourthly, fasting is important because it unites us to Christ. Our constant mission throughout life is to conform ourselves more fully to Him. In fasting we both follow His example and join in His passion and death. In the Gospel Our Lord calls on us to “take up your cross every day and follow me.” The act of fasting, particularly during Lent, is a means of embracing our cross and following Our Lord to Calvary. And when we have joined Him in His passion and death, we are then also able to join Him in His resurrection.
The final reason why the attitude which rejects fasting is incorrect is that it makes Lent all about us and our willpower rather than about God and His mercy. Lent should be an opportunity to increase our reliance on the grace of God which helps us to renounce the pleasures of this world and on the mercy of God by which He forgives us when we fail. Would any of us say that we have given up trying not to sin because we always end up sinning? I certainly hope not. So neither should we give up fasting because we sometimes break the fast.
Throughout the season of Lent we are marching toward the Cross. The Cross, from which Jesus promised paradise to a miserable thief. The Cross, from which, gasping for breath as He endured the cruelest of deaths, Our Lord uttered “Father, forgive them.” The Cross, from which God’s mercy literally flowed when the centurion stabbed Him in the side, letting loose a fountain of blood and water - the love and mercy of God - which drenched the soldier causing him to cry out that “Truly, this was the Son of God.”
Don’t be afraid to fast this Lent. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself. Face your greatest weakness, take on your greatest temptation. And if you fall, don’t give up. Run to Him. He is literally dying to shower you with His mercy and His grace. His mercy by which He forgives you and His grace by which you will be able to get back up and continue on your Lenten journey. Our Lord told His disciples “forgive not seven times but seventy times seven.” He longs to forgive you every time you fall. Even if you fall seventy times seven times. He died to pour out His mercy and grace on you so that, eventually, if you persevere, you may overcome your struggle.