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Mark Shea: So what’s the point of fasting?

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The work of Lent is about learning to make our bodies serve our spirits. Image: Juli Kosolapova/Unsplash

Part 4 of Mark’s series of reflections on Lent

We now move on in our Lenten series to discuss the third of the Jewish acts of piety that Jesus instructs us to observe: fasting.

Actually, to be precise, Jesus does not so much “instruct us to observe” almsgiving, prayer, or fasting as simply assume that we are going to do it. He says, “When” (not if) “you give alms… pray…. fast…” (cf. Matthew 6:2, 6:5, 6:16). There is no question that any disciple worth his salt will certainly do these things. That is simply assumed. What Jesus is concerned with is the spirit in which they are done. And with extreme consistency, what Jesus demands is that they be done to please God, not to score virtue-signaling points with human beings.

But before we can move on to discussing fasting, a question arises in many postmodern minds that does not arise concerning almsgiving or prayer: namely, why fast? What’s the point?

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Almsgiving, after all, has an obvious and concrete value in building up the community and caring for the poor. Prayer, likewise, is about building relationship with God, and communal prayer can likewise build relationship with fellow believers.

But for many post-moderns, fasting seems purely negative: a strange act of self-loathing and self-abuse with no goal in view other than making somebody go hungry for the sake of going hungry. And this fills many people with the apprehension that, at the end of the day, Christian faith is basically about loathing of pleasure and the haunting fear that someone, somewhere is having a good time.

Christianity is so emphatic about the goodness of Creation that it insists not merely that God made everything, but that he joined himself to Creation

But this is not, of course, the case. Christianity is predicated on the ancient Israelite faith that God is the Creator who pronounces everything his hands have made “good”. The notion that pleasure is, along with the rest of Creation, bad is not Christian, but gnostic.

Indeed, Christianity is so emphatic about the goodness of Creation that it insists not merely that God made everything, but that he joined himself to Creation in a human body and, what is more, that he brought that body out of the grave, glorified and divinised, and took it with him to Heaven where he awaits the day when he will “change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:21).

So if the Faith is not about loathing of creation, then why fast?

For the same reason that training for a marathon is not about suffering, but about winning. Fasting is about learning to make our desires and appetites serve us rather than us serving them.

When Jesus began his public ministry, he went into the desert to fast for forty days (by no coincidence, the same length of time as Lent).

His action not only recalled Israel’s time wandering forty years in the desert after the Exodus, it signaled his success (on our behalf) in doing what Israel could not do. In the temptations he faced, Jesus trained our rowdy, wilful, selfish human nature—damaged by the Fall—to surrender the demands of our disordered appetites to the will of God. And that is what fasting is all about.

The problem we face as a race of fallen predators is what the Tradition calls “concupiscence”. Concupiscence is not itself sin. But it is, so to speak, the “tinder” for sin: the darkened intellect, weakened will, and disordered appetites to which we are prey as fallen creatures. This applies not merely to appetites for food, but to all our tyrannous desires that drive us to choose self over love for God and neighbor.

But isn’t fasting too crudely materialistic and unspiritual?

Nope. Because our bodies and our spirits are profoundly linked, not separate or, worse, opposites. That is why Jesus was raised bodily, why we will be too, and why the work of Lent is about learning to make our bodies serve our spirits rather than vice versa.

The gnostic conception of our relationship to our bodies pits the body against the spirit and speaks of liberating the spirit from the body, as though it is a prison. The Christian conception is something closer to a rider training a wild Pegasus. The goal is not to loathe the body, but for the body to learn to reject lesser goods in favor of exquisitely greater ones in obedience to the Holy Spirit.

That is why fasting must, like prayer and almsgiving, be ordered toward pleasing God and not toward virtue-signaling. Because virtue-signaling is ordered toward pride and vanity, two supremely selfish goals.

Next time, we will take a closer look at how Jesus says to fast.


Mark Shea: Why are you giving alms in Lent?

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