+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Growing up, I recall my parish priest telling an anecdotal story about a couple who were newly married. One night, these newly weds were preparing a roast for dinner. While preparing the roast, however, my friend cut off a few inches from the end of the roast. When I asked her why she did this, she replied, "I don't really know, but my mother always did it that way."
When she asked her mother for the reason for this curious custom, her mother replied, "I do it because my mother always prepared her roasts that way." She visited her grandmother one day and asked her the same question. "I always had to cut off a bit from the end,” her grandmother said, “ because my only pan was too small." Her grandmother had a good reason for what she did, but the others had repeated the practice for no good reason other than "that's the way my mother did it."
In many ways, we do exactly the same thing. We respect certain religious traditions and observe certain practices of our faith simply because “our mothers did them.” This is not necessarily wrong, but it is a sure prescription for turning these traditions into empty and meaningless customs. With our faith, it is not only important for us to know what we should do, but also why we should do it. The reasons for certain customs, traditions, and practices are as important as our commitment to preserve them.
In some ways, this is how we fast. We fast without knowing exactly why. We just know that it's something that should be done. As we enter Great Lent, and the great fast begins, we will probably be told about various practices or instructed about certain customs about fasting. Someone may tell us that we are not to eat meat during Lent; perhaps someone else will tell us to not have any dairy products; or perhaps we will be told to curb our diet in other ways. In most instances, we are told to do these things without being told the reason why.
What exactly, then, is the reason for fasting? One answer might lie in the story of a wealthy businessman who went to retreat at a distant monastery. His journey to the monastery was a sincere one; it was a journey in which he wished to grow closer to God. When he arrived at the monastery, he was warmly greeted. Later, he was brought before the abbot of the monastery to seek spiritual direction. While in the presence of the abbot, the abbot asked the man if he would like a glass of water. When the man responded with a “yes”, the abbot began to pour him some water. The abbot poured and poured until the water reached the very tip of the glass; but he didn't stop! Instead, he kept pouring and pouring so that the water overflowed the rim of the glass; ran onto the table; and drenched the expensive suit which the man was wearing.
Jumping up in a frenzy, the man yelled at the abbot, “What are you doing? Look at what you did to my suit!” Turning to the man, the abbot said, “You are like this glass of water. You are so full of concerns—concerns for riches and other anxieties of the world. You are completely full. There is no space for you to hold anything else inside. There is no room for God to come in. Before God can come in, you must empty yourself and make room for Him to enter.”
The reason for fasting, then, is precisely this: Fasting is a way of emptying ourselves from the cares and concerns of this world—A means of preparation and conditioning, which will enable us serve God and grow closer to Him.
Preparation for God's service was the very reason why some of the greatest witnesses of the faith fasted. Moses fasted for forty days before he met God on Mt. Sinai; the prophets fasted before they pronounced the word of God; and Christ himself fasted for forty days in the desert before He began His ministry. Indeed, even today, an athlete will prepare for a match through intense diet and training; so too, as Christians, we engage in a similar preparation by fasting before receiving Holy Communion; and now as Great Lent begins, we undertake the fast to prepare ourselves to receive the risen Christ on Easter!
Yet how is it that fasting prepares us? Is it something magical, which will take effect only if we follow it exactly? Certainly not! True fasting prepares us to receive God, because it is not merely confined to the abstinence of food. On the contrary, true fasting involves abstinence from everything that distances us from God. By emptying ourselves of sin, of gossip, of hate, and every other evil which fights against us, we allow ourselves to be cleansed and refilled with the contents of the gospel. By removing those obstacles, we make room for God to come into our hearts and refill the glass of our lives with His message. He now becomes the source of our nourishment, for as Christ said, “Man cannot live by bread alone.” Fasting is thus a way for us to empty all the things which take up room and “fill” the glass of water, which is ourselves.
Fasting aids in this transfiguration of ourselves because true fasting is active and alive. God Himself pronounced this through Isaiah when He said, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your homes; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
If fasting is not accompanied by good works, then that fast is dead. That fast is merely a dead ritual, devoid of the presence of God. If fasting becomes merely an exercise of abstaining from food, then its true purpose has become lost.
The true nature of fasting shows that the rituals of a life lived faithfully before God are not empty gestures. They usually have profound meaning and can point us in the direction of realities far greater than ourselves. An important part of living our faith is in knowing our faith.
Our ignorance, however, has another side to it: when we don’t know the reasons why we do the things we do, we may end up following them blindly for a while. As a result, we may no longer see any need to continue doing them. From misuse they may fall completely into disuse. The unfortunate consequence is that we lose sight of the importance of things that can enrich our lives and enliven our faith.
Why do we cut off that small portion at the end of the roast? What is the reason for fasting? Some of us take these practices for granted, while others simply abandon them completely. Unfortunately, both act out of ignorance. As a Christian, don't be satisfied with the response "that's the way my mother did it."; don’t be satisfied with following things blindly when it comes to the practice of your faith; rather, as best as you can, make and active attempt to learn more about your faith and actualize it daily in your life to the glory of God.
Remember to fight the good fight; to run that race that is before you; to keep the faith; and with Great Lent in your sights, remember to keep the true fast.