Fasting, Abstinence, and Liberation

JMJ

WHAT DID YOU GIVE UP FOR LENT? Don’t tell me – you’re not supposed to tell folks. But what was it? Do you think of it as a struggle or a punishment to do so? Are you making a sacrifice for God? Or are you doing something to make up for your sins? What is fasting about? If you follow through on “just the rules” there is both fasting and abstinence: we’re supposed to eat less, and not eat certain things. And then something else (TV? Chocolate?) sort of creeps in because we know we can substitute something else for the food thing. So, if I give up my phone for a couple of hours a day, then I can keep eating hamburgers, right?

Why do we fast?

In the east and the west, Christians used to have a more strict fast: generally, all animal products were removed from the diet (there were some exceptions for Sundays and feast days). Additionally, the amount of food was limited: one meal a day, only eaten late in the day. The timing was relative to the liturgical practice: you only take communion after fasting. So Mass or (in the east) the Divine Liturgy were postponed until very late in the day. In the west you said Mass in the afternoon. In the East, communion came with Vespers. You ate only after communion.

Why? What’s wrong with meat or cheese or even wine? Nothing at all. Why do we do it then? Can’t we replace giving up wine (how much do we drink anyway?) with no chocolate? And who fasts until 3 in the afternoon? Pshaw. That’s all just showing off. Works don’t make us more holy. God loves us as we are. Those last two sentences are totally true. They are not modern. All of the Church Fathers – including those who wrote the rules about fasting and abstinence – would agree that rules don’t make us holy and God loves us fully even if we eat hamburgers on Good Friday. So what’s this about?

Look at the rules:
– Don’t eat until late in the day.
– Don’t eat more than once.
– Don’t eat animal products.
– Don’t drink alcohol.

Who would those rules affect? Farmers? Peasants? Homeless? Not really at all. Many if not all of these folks were lucky to eat – usually bread and maybe veggies – after working all day. These rules would affect the rich. In fact, these rules would force the rich from your local officials all the way up to the emperor (if he were pious) to live – at least a little – as if they were poor. When coupled with the traditional command to give alms during Lent, this all begins to make sense. Lent is a spiritual practice of solidarity with the poorest in our Christian family. It’s not enough to be in solidarity as such – this is not about political action per se – but it is exactly a political act in itself. It is acting in a way contrary to the world: my riches mean nothing to me. I give them up, even if only for a time, to live in solidarity with the poor. If you realize that the most ancient Christian traditions did not only fast/abstain in Lent, but several periods throughout the year as well as every Wednesday and Friday throughout the year, suddenly it’s nearly 50% of the time was some form of Lent, some form of solidarity with the poor.

What made me realize this was a comment about feasting. The rules about fasting only cut out feasting foods. The issue, for us moderns, is that we feast all the time. We have meat all the time. We have fats and adult beverages whenever we want. We have no idea what it means to feast because we don’t have fasting days anymore and – more importantly – we don’t have normal days where it’s mostly a fast. Feasts are not special because every meal is a sumptuous feast from our bagel and coffee to our late-night snack of ice cream. Even our standing in front of the fridge in a daze eating leftovers out of Tupperware with our fingers is feasting.

This is why it’s important not to imagine giving up TV or sweets is the same thing.

Fasting and abstaining are intended to make us uncomfortable, are intended to be hard, not because of our sins but because of our comfort, because of our ease.

The patristic teaching on these practices included the counsel to take what you do not spend on your feasting foods and hand it directly to the poor. What a concept! Fasting leads directly to charity. Abstinence leads to liberation.

Pray
Give up costly things
Give your money to the poor
Pray.

This is not only a problem in the West, even the Orthodox have forgotten the “fasting” part of the equation. A priest commented to me “We too are supposed to only eat one meal a day, but we ignore that part…” They pretty much eat all they want, just vegan. So you can have all the soy ice cream you like. And, as one layman joked, “Who cares if you can’t eat steak. Lobster is fine.” (Shellfish is poor people food…)

If you think, though, that this is about the rules as such, or that fasting is some Mediaeval (and mistaken) idea about paying God back for our sins, then, of course you would get rid of this. You might even quote scripture:

This is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin. (Isaiah 58:6-7)

But these are not conflicting: these are the same thing. You can’t share your bread if you eat it…

A blessed Lent!

Author: Huw Richardson

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He feeds the homeless and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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