The season of Lent begins tomorrow, February 17 with the observance of Ash Wednesday, a day of abstinence from meat for all Catholics and a day of fasting for all Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 except for those who are exempt for reasons of health.
But do we really understand what it means to fast and to abstain? While the letter of the law is very clear, the spirit of the law is often misconstrued. For example, eating lobster on a Friday during Lent certainly fulfills the letter of the law. But I would suggest that it violates the spirit of the law. Rather, we can learn from the prophet Isaiah, who offered the following reflection on what it means to offer a fast that is acceptable to the Lord:
Is this the manner of fasting I would choose, a day to afflict oneself?
To bow one’s head like a reed, and lie upon sackcloth and ashes?
Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?
Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose:
releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed, breaking off every yoke?
Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house;
Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own flesh?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed;
Your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. (Isaiah 58:5-8)
In other words, when we fast or practice abstinence, we should not be trying to get around the law by lavishing ourselves with luxuries. Nor should we go about punishing ourselves, as if to say, “God, look at how good I am”. True fasting is not about us at all. It is about learning to put ourselves in the shoes of those who are less fortunate. That is why true fasting always goes hand in hand with the giving of alms. My fasting and abstinence should allow me to share what I have with those who are in need—the poor, the hungry, the homeless, those who are afflicted.
But just as important as the act of sharing in their need is the attitude with which I do it. St. Basil once wrote: “Let us fast an acceptable and very pleasing fast to the Lord. True fast is the estrangement from evil, temperance of tongue, abstinence from anger, separation from desires, slander, falsehood and perjury. Privation of these is true fasting.” Perhaps fasting might mean for any one of us giving up whatever idol keeps us from knowing, loving and serving God—whatever idol prevents us from seeing Christ in those around us. For some of us, that idol is sugar. For others, it might be alcohol, or caffeine, or something subtler, such as gossip, or prestige, or pride. For all of us, it means recognizing who we are and who God has created us to be in true humility.
Let us learn, then, from St. Basil and from the prophet Isaiah what it means to fast according to the spirit of the law, so that we focus not on ourselves, not on our needs or desires, but on the good of those around us. It is only then, Isaiah tells us, that our vindication will go before us and the glory of the Lord shall be our rear guard. As members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, we are particularly conscious that, as our motto reminds us, we are called to do all things in Friendship, Unity and Christian Charity. We are mindful in particular of those charities which allow us as an Order, to assist those in need through such efforts as the Hibernians Disaster Relief Fund, Project Saint Patrick, and the Hibernian Hunger Project in addition to those needs of our particular communities. As you engage in fasting over these next six weeks, I invite you to consider supporting the charities which are central to the mission of our Order in addition to those charities which may be first and foremost in your minds and hearts because they make a difference in the lives of those in your own communities and neighborhoods.
As we prepare to enter into the season of Lent tomorrow, may the Lord be with you and bless you, that you might know what it means to know him, to love him, and to serve him.
Fr. John Keehner