Fasting during Lent is a spiritual exercise that is often, instead, treated as a 40-day challenge or even another chance at a New Year’s Resolution to break a bad habit. As a spiritual exercise, fasting is a way to draw closer to the Lord and practice choosing God by the strength of the Holy Spirit bestowed up us at Baptism and strengthened within us at Confirmation.
I remember when I learned that if you add up the days from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, the season of Lent is actually more than 40 days. This is because Sundays are not counted in the 40 days of this penitential season.
Then the disciples of John approached him and said, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast [much], but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.Matthew 9:14-15
Every Sunday of the year, including the Sundays of Lent, is a mini-Easter. We gather as a community of faith to celebrate the Resurrection and the Salvation that Jesus won for us. This is when we recall that Jesus, the bridegroom, is with us. It is cause for celebration not fasting.
What can we learn from Jesus’ 40 days fasting in the desert?
On the First Sunday of Lent, we read Luke 4:1-13 – the story of Jesus going out into the desert filled with the Holy Spirit to fast for 40 days and be tempted by the devil. Jesus stripped himself of the physical nourishment that gives human beings strength. The Gospel tells us that at the end of the 40 days, Jesus was hungry. Then, when Jesus is physically worn down with hunger, the devil enters the scene. The Holy Spirit is the only source of strength for Jesus as he faces the devil’s three temptations.
First, the devil tempts Jesus to use his divine power as Son of God selfishly to satisfy His hunger.
The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, One does not live on bread alone.”Luke 4:3-4
In the second temptation, the devil offers Jesus power if only He would reject God and worship him instead.
Then he took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant. The devil said to him, “I shall give to you all this power and their glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish. All this will be yours, if you worship me.” Jesus said to him in reply, “It is written: ‘You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.’”Luke 4:4-8
Finally, the devil tempts Jesus to test God’s faithfulness to Him.
Then he led him to Jerusalem, made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and: ‘With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him in reply, “It also says, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.’”Luke 4:9-12
Strengthened by the Holy Spirit, Jesus chooses faithfulness to God and resists these temptations despite lacking physical strength and any shred of human comforts to give Him fortitude. This is how Jesus begins His mission.
Near the end of Jesus’ life, as He approaches the culmination of His mission on Earth on the cross, Jesus is about to face another moment of great physical trial. Before He is arrested, beaten, humiliated, and crucified, Jesus goes to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. Even in His distress, Jesus has the strength to say three times to the Father, “not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:36-46).
Why do we follow Jesus into the desert to fast for 40 days of Lent?
As I mentioned earlier, Lent is not a 40-day challenge nor is it another chance at a New Year’s Resolution. Further, those who break their fast on Sundays are not “cheating.”
Lent is an opportunity to practice saying no to temptations and choosing to focus on God instead. It’s an opportunity to resist the temptation to enjoy one of your preferences (i.e. something you like) in order to practice the strength of will you’ll need to say no in the face of temptations that actually have spiritual stakes.
What you fast from does not need to be evil or a bad habit that you are trying to break. You can give up something you really enjoy that you don’t feel is unhealthy in your life.
For example, maybe you choose to fast from adding cream to your coffee. This, in and of itself, is not bad for you. It’s not unhealthy. It’s simply a preference you enjoy. If you’re like me, one of the first thoughts that pops into your head when you wake up in the morning is your eagerness for that first cup of coffee. You may begin imagining its delicious smell before you even make it to the kitchen. That first cup of coffee which you’ve made nearly real just in your imagination… it has cream in it. That’s what you’re craving first thing in the morning – the perfect cup of coffee that has turned the most beautiful caramelly color because it has just the right coffee to cream ratio for your taste. But! No cream because it’s your Lenten fast. Now, the morning becomes an opportunity to say resist the temptation to enjoy one of your preferences in order to practice the strength of will you’ll need in the face of temptations that actually have spiritual stakes. Call upon the Holy Spirit for strength, and pour yourself a cup of black coffee.
What situations have spiritual stakes?
By “spiritual stakes” I mean situations in which your decision will either draw you closer to God or push God away from you. Big or small moments can have spiritual stakes. In our day-to-day, the small moments are much more common.
Consider the temptation to snooze your alarm and oversleep when you intended to spend time in prayer before you had to get ready for the day.
Maybe someone shared something very personal with you and trusted you to keep it in confidence, but you are itching to tell someone else, cast judgments, or gossip about it.
Perhaps you made a promise to help someone out, but then you get busy or you don’t feel like following through and you are tempted to flake.
As human beings in a fallen world, we do not have the strength of will to make all the right (holy) decisions. Fasting during Lent offers us an opportunity to practice calling upon the Holy Spirit for the strength to choose God and make decisions in our daily lives that bring us closer to God.
LAURA TRINGALI SOBIESKI