It’s a fast day today.
That’s quite a rare thing, actually. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are the only two official Fast Days in the Catholic Year. Every Friday is an abstinence day, but it’s only twice a year we’re asked to fast. I guess that makes today a bit special!
So why are we skimping on food today?
One kind of answer is that God tells us to fast. The first reading says “Proclaim a fast!” and in the Gospel Jesus tells us what to do “when we fast” – he’s taking it for granted that we will. But we can do better than that – fasting is more than blind obedience to a God who says we should fast and a Church which has picked today as the day. So why fast?
Are we trying to bargain with God? “Hey Lord, I’m doing something difficult for you, now it’s your turn to help me out!” – No. Prayer doesn’t work like that.
When we are grieving, we lose our appetites. “Not eating” can be a very natural expression of sorrow. So it makes sense to fast on Good Friday, when the Lord, whom we love, has been slain. But today, Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of our Lenten season of self-examination. Are we grieving for our own sinfulness? I doubt many of us feel that bad about ourselves!
And yet… sometimes human beings can get so concerned that they are not the person they should be, that they go to extreme measures of fasting – we call that anorexia. I have known families where a child has become anorexic, to the great distress of the parents. The roots are complex. Partly it’s about chasing an impossible body image, not helped by the magic which the media uses to beautify what we see on the screen and on the printed page. Partly it’s about a young person wanting to control things in a life where they cannot be fully in charge. Each case is unique. But as we choose to fast on this Ash Wednesday, let’s take a moment to pray for those families for whom fasting is not an option, but an affliction.
Anorexia takes to extremes what each one us is invited to recognise in a moderate way: not one of us is yet the person we are called to be. We are called to be holy – and a Catholic author called Matthew Kelly describes holiness like this: “Holiness is being the best version of yourself.” It’s being the version of ourselves that our loving Father in heaven is longing for us to be.
So how do we become holy? In Latin, the word for “holiness” is sacra and the verb that means “making” is facire. To make something holy is sacrum-facire – or in English, sacrifice!
If we want to be the best versions of ourselves for God, we are invited to sacrifice some pleasure which, in moderation, is good and enjoyable, for the sake of something better. This is what makes fasting part of our journey to the heart of God. It’s when we take seriously the prayer of Jesus, “Not my will, but yours be done.” When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we affirm the easier half – God’s will be done. When we fast, we confront the difficult half – for God’s sake, I need to set aside what I want.
Fasting helps us distinguish the different kinds of “want” in our lives.There’s the thing that I desire – and the thing that I choose. “I want a large pizza!” But “I want to lose weight!” They are both desirable. But I want a pizza for the raw pleasure of the taste, while I want to lose weight for the more noble motive of my health. Which will I choose?
It’s very easy to give in to our basic emotions – hunger; anger; lust. It takes effort to say no to those things and choose instead what is best for us and for those we care about. If we are going to say NO to those things which are harmful, it helps to train ourselves to have the will-power to sometimes say NO also to moderate pleasures which are not harmful, yet not necessary. In this way, we show God we are serious about being the best version of ourselves, about being the person God is inviting us to be. When we sacrifice, we are made holy.
It’s a fast day today. That’s quite a rare thing – and Lent comes but once a year.
So what do you want? What will make you holy? What will make you the best version of yourself? Today, begin your journey back to God – begin with fasting, and throughout this Lent, set aside something good as a sign that you are serious about asking God for something better.