Rev. Mr. Jonathan Romanoski, FSSP
“And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterwards He was hungry.”
Today we celebrate the first Sunday of Lent, yet today we do not fast. The Church rather began her fast this past Wednesday, so as to imitate most faithfully the life of our Lord in a fast for exactly 40 days, 6 days being taken off for the Sundays of the 6 weeks of Lent. Notice the care with which the Church has observed this fast from most ancient times. We read of the apostles fasting and enjoining it in turn on others. The third Roman Pontiff, St. Clement, who is mentioned in the Scriptures, ordained that Catholics should fast every Wednesday and Friday of the year. In the days of our Holy Fathers, the Church was fervent and her members not only fasted but abstained from all meat, eggs, cheese and milk throughout Lent, and ate but once at sundown.
But the hearts of men grew cold and their wills weak, and the discipline was gradually mitigated. Abstinence was dropped, collations were added and dispensations were sought with much frequency. To such a point that Pope Benedict XIV, who was pope from 1740-1758, and “whose spirit of moderation,” Dom Gueranger tells us, “has never been called into question, had no sooner ascended the papal throne, than he addressed an encyclical letter to the bishops of the Catholic world, expressing his heartfelt grief at seeing the great relaxation that was introduced among the faithful by indiscreet and unnecessary dispensations.” In his letter he hearkens us back to the desert, and the divine dignity found therein as he writes, “The observance of Lent is the very badge of the Christian warfare. By it we prove ourselves not to be enemies of the cross of Christ. By it we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. Should mankind grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe.” Strong words indeed. Did they prove true? Dom Gueranger a hundred years later comments on this “ever-growing spirit of immortification,” which cannot but result in “a general effeminacy of character, which will lead, at last, to frightful social disorders.” He writes, “The sad predictions of Pope Benedict XIV, are but too truly verified. Those nations, among whose people the spirit and practice of penance are extinct, are heaping against themselves the wrath of God, and provoking His justice to destroy them by one or other of these scourges- civil discord, or conquest…[this] is one of the worst presages of the future. The word of God is unmistakable: unless we do penance we shall perish (St. Luke 13:3).” “But,” he continues “if our ease-loving and sensual generation were to return, like the Ninivites, to the long-neglected way of penance and expiation, who knows but that the arm of God, which is already raised to strike us, may give us blessing and not chastisement?” And what would they say 150 yrs. later, in our day.
Perhaps you are still unconvinced, of the great evils that come from not fasting. Let us step back therefore and consider what evils have come from such a lack of mortification. St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, St. Jerome, and St. Gregory the Great, 4 of the greatest doctors of the Church, make the remark that the only negative commandment put upon our first parents in the earthly paradise was one of abstinence from a certain fruit; and that it was by their not exercising this virtue, that they brought every kind of evil upon themselves and upon their children. The whole human race therefore fell through a want of fasting. Esau lost his birthright, trading the blessings of the firstborn for a bowl of lentils, while Jacob by his detachment won it for himself and all of Israel. The chosen people, on their way to the Promised Land, because they ate and drank immoderately, rose up to play, and traded the image of God in their souls, for the image of a beast, while Moses fasting upon the mount, spoke face to face with God. The tale goes on and on. How about in our own lives? Consider the evils that you’ve seen. How many spouses who have cheated on each other were fasting, how many alcoholics and drug abusers; how many parents who simply neglect the care of their children, or waste their family savings, are fasting? How many broken families were fasting? How many involved in the occult, fast? Probably very few if any, for all these sins are most often rooted in a selfish pursuit of pleasure. And fasting is the remedy. I was once told of a holy priest, whose only advice to young ladies who came to him seeking advice on who to marry, was that they should seek a man that fasts. For if he cannot deny his passions, he will not be able to direct a family. When your beauty fades, and the kids begin to make noise, the husband who will not fast will simply prefer football and beer, and will never love you as Christ loves the Church. And you will not have a happy family.
Now fasting is not the sum of virtue, nor by any means the highest one. Quite the contrary it is amidst the lower ones, but yet a first rung by which we ascend to the higher. For he who fails in little things, will fail in great things. If we think we have excelled in virtue we should consider whether we have even taken the first step. As St. Gregory the Great says, “unless we first tame the enemy dwelling within us, namely our gluttonous appetite, we have not even stood up to engage in the spiritual combat.” Gluttony which, St. Thomas tells us, consists us not only in eating to much, but too frequently, of too costly quality, greedily, that is without manners, or too daintily or finicky, as well.
Fasting is the first step in our “Christian warfare” against the ancient enemy of “the flesh” as St. Paul tells us. “For the flesh lusteth against the spirit: and the spirit against the flesh; for these are contrary one to another: so that you do not the things that you would.” By fasting our wills grow strong as we tame our sensual desires, which are interconnected as St. Thomas notes. A holy confessor once told me: many who are struggling with sins of sensuality, do so because of a failure to mortify their taste. For if every time we eat, our principle is: this feels good, this tastes good, therefore do it, how do you think we are going to respond when other temptations come that “feel good?” And as St. Augustine notes, “He that deprives his body of nothing that is lawful, will soon allow it what is unlawful.”
Yet an even higher motive is found in the imitation of Christ who stands before us today in the desert, fasting. He, who did not need to do any penance, who though tempted externally, was not in anyway inclined to sin, as he was absolutely impeccable, incapable of sinning, fasts. Why? To give us an example, an example which he first preaches by his actions before he begins his public ministry. And what are the first words of Incarnate Wisdom? What are the first words that God addresses to us in the fullness of time, in the fullness of revelation in His own Incarnate Word? “Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Now as I remarked, the unbroken tradition of the Church since earliest times, has been that the adult Christian fasted for forty days. Yet in our very dark times of apostasy, full of so much murder, sin, and hatred of God, and thus so deserving of divine punishment, this 2000-year discipline has all but disappeared. You can read of the current minimal requirements of fasting and abstinence for the Lenten season in last Sunday’s bulletin, which are the only ones, which oblige you under pain of sin.* There has always been of course reason for just dispensations, due to poor health, frailty, taxing physical labor, and other circumstances, which would make such a fast contrary to reason. And unfortunately our society does not respect Lent as in times past, and does not adjust itself to the Church’s sacred mysteries, as it should. But all of this does not excuse us from penance, as we can always practice self-denial. With regard to food, if not in quantity then in quality. And besides food, the Church bids us to practice mortification in almsgiving, acts of charity and more time in prayer, which of course are the ends of fasting, being as they are the greater spiritual goods. But we must first subdue our flesh if we wish to live according to the spirit. And if we are to be numbered amongst those “traditionalists,” whom St. Pius X said we have such need of today, we will certainly strive to holdfast to the constant tradition of the Church’s fast.
And what will be the fruits of fasting? St. Basil tell us “it is fasting which gives the wings to prayer that it may rise to heaven; it is the solidifying element in family life, the health of the mother and the teacher of the children…fasting nor merely frees you from future condemnation; it also preserves you from many evils and brings the flesh, otherwise untamable into subjection.” It leads us in victory over Satan, as we read in the gospel today, as there are certain demons, which are only cast out through prayer and fasting. Happy and holy will the family be in which there is practiced such self-denial.
Finally, I wish to emphasize one last point, the most important point. As I mentioned, fasting so as to subdue our flesh and make reparation for sin is not the highest virtue. And it is quite possible that if we approach Lent with the wrong spirit, we will accomplish nothing more than 40 days of worthless pride, admiring our accomplishments as we flex in the mirror of self-love, leaving us with much more to make reparation for. To act thus, would be to miss the deepest meaning of every fast, which is found in that ever-uncomfortable experience of hunger. That hunger in which we taste our nothingness, and savor our dependency. That hunger in which is heard the most important truth that St. Catherine of Sienna said our Lord ever taught her, amidst her innumerable sublime revelations, which summed up all that he taught he, when he said “known daughter that I am He who Is, and you are that which is not.” 40 days of hunger will be the daily proof of our nothingness of our insufficiency, which must be our boast. For when we are weak then we are strong. For then we will finally forsake and despair of ourselves, and truly hope in God’s help, crying out in union with Christ forsaken, “I thirst.” That unquenchable thirst…that thirst for God alone. This is the meaning of Lent. May God grant us the grace to truly learn it throughout this holy season.
“And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterwards He was hungry.”
* Which are for those between 18 and 59 to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, eating not more than one full meal, and 2 collations which would not together equal a full meal; and for all over 14 to abstain from meat on the above and the Fridays of Lent. The faithful are still obliged to do some penance throughout all of Lent.