THE VALUE OF FASTING
We might wonder what value and meaning there are for us Christians in depriving ourselves of something that in itself is good and useful for our bodily sustenance. The sacred Scriptures and the entire Christian tradition teach that fasting is a great help to avoid sin and all that leads to it. For this reason, the history of salvation is replete with occasions that invite fasting.
In the very first pages of sacred Scripture, the Lord commands man to abstain from partaking of the prohibited fruit. "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and devil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die (Genesis 2:16-17). Commenting on divine injunction, St. Basil observes that "fasting was ordained in Paradise" and that "the first commandment in this sense was delivered to Adam." He thus concludes: "'You shall not eat' is a law of fasting and abstinence" (cf. Sermo de jejunio: PG 31, 163, 98).
Since all of us are weighed down by sin and its consequences, fasting is proposed to us as an instrument to restore friendship with God. Such was the case with Ezra, who in preparation for the journey from exile back to the promised land, called upon the assembled people to fast so that "we might humble ourselves before God (Ezra 8:21). The Almighty heard their prayer and assured them of his favor and protection. In the same way, the people of Nineveh, responding to Jonah's call to repentance, proclaimed a fast as a sign of their sincerity, saying, "Who knows, God may yet repent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we perish not?" (Jonah 3:9). In this instance too, God saw their works and spared them.
In the New Testament, Jesus brings to light the profound motive for fasting, condemning the attitude of the Pharisees, who scrupulously observed the prescriptions of the law but whose hearts were far from God. True fasting, as the divine Master repeats elsewhere, is rather to do the will of the heavenly Father, who "sees in secret, and will reward you" (Matthew 6:18). He himself sets the example, answering Satan at the end of the forty days spent in the desert that "man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4). The true fast is thus directed to eating the "true food," which is to do the Father's will (cf. John 4:34). If, therefore, Adam disobeyed the Lord's command "of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat," the believer, through fasting, intends to submit himself humbly to God, trusting in his goodness and mercy.
The practice of fasting is very present in the first Christian community (cf. Acts 13:3; 14:23; 2 Corinthians 6:5). The Church fathers, too, speak of the force of fasting to bridle sin, especially the lusts of the "old Adam," and open in the heart of the believer a path to God. Moreover, fasting is a practice that is encountered frequently and recommended by the saints of every age. St. Peter Chrysologus writes: "Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood fasting. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others, you open God's ear to yourself" (Sermo 43: PL 52, 320, 322).
- Message for Lent 2009
From Lent with Pope Benedict XVI: Meditations for Every Day