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Why fast?

Imagine this scenario: A married man goes out after work for a drink. He gets drunk. On the way home, he crashes into his neighbor’s parked car. He is taken, unconscious, to the hospital. His wife apologizes to the neighbor. Her husband’s friend pays for the repairs on both cars. What sin did her husband commit?


He committed the sin of gluttony. Gluttony is defined by the Catechism as “overindulgence in food or drink.” Fr. John Hardon says that gluttony, “Of itself, is a venial sin; but may become mortal by reason of its evil effects on the gluttonous person, on others, or on society.” In the preceding example, the “evil effects” include: damage to his relationship with God, his wife, his neighbor, his health, and damage to the cars.


Fr. Hardon says the desire for food and drink can become sinful:

  • By eating far more than is needed to maintain bodily strength.

  • By eating foods that one knows are detrimental to one’s health.

  • By indulging in exquisite and expensive foods--- especially when one can’t afford them.

  • By eating or drinking ravenously.

  • By consuming alcoholic beverages to the point of losing one’s reasoning powers.


When Dives (Luke 16:19) ate “sumptuously every day” while Lazarus died from hunger outside his door, Dives committed the sin of gluttony: because of his overindulgence, and because his overindulgence caused him to neglect his neighbor’s need.  In Ezekiel (16:49), we are told that the citizens of Sodom, being “sated with food,” fell into licentiousness.  Similarly, St. Paul says of the “enemies of Christ,” that “their God is their belly.” (Philippians 3:18-20)


The virtue opposed to gluttony is temperance: reasonable and moderate consumption of food and drink.  But during Lent, we are required to go beyond temperance, to fast, by imposing limits on the kind and quantity of food or drink. “But why?” one might ask, “For what reason?”


One reason is because Jesus prayed and fasted, for forty days at the beginning of his earthly ministry.  He showed us that fasting joined with prayer can help one defeat the devil.  When tempted by the devil to turn stones into bread, He said: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God…  Begone Satan!” (Mat 4:4-10)  He told his disciples, who couldn’t cure the possessed boy, “This demon does not come out except by prayer and fasting.” (Mat 17:20-21)  In the Book of Jonah, the people of Nineveh were spared because they repented, prayed and fasted.


Another reason is because our bodies are perishable, while our souls are immortal. Therefore, care of one’s soul should take priority over care of one’s body!  Bishop Sheen writes: “Is the soul the tool of the body, or the body the tool of the soul?  …We are to mortify bodily hunger not because the flesh is wicked, but because the soul must ever exercise mastery over it… Mortification of the bodily appetites is only a means, not an end. The end is union with God, the soul’s desire.”  


Fr. Hardon once said, “Penance (repentance) and reparation (the pain we must endure) are the price we have to pay for our own and other people’s sin… Penance and reparation are what God requires from sinners as a condition for showing them His mercy.”   In the preceding scenario, the wife repented (did penance) on behalf of her husband, while the husband’s friend paid for repairs (made reparation) on behalf of his friend.   When Jesus prayed and fasted at the beginning of His ministry, He began the penance and suffering (reparation) that would reach its climax on the cross. Bishop Sheen says that when Jesus said, “I thirst” from the cross, He was making reparation “for the luxury of eating and drinking” by sinners. We participate in Jesus’ redemptive suffering when we join our suffering with His. 


If by fasting we become crabby and unpleasant to be around, we have missed its end.  Its purpose is to awaken an appetite for God: a desire to live virtuously through acts of forgiveness, charity, patience, and so on.  When Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” (Mat 5:6) this means to “Hunger and thirst to do what is right in the eyes of God, through use of the sacraments, prayer, and a valiant effort to fulfill one’s social, professional and family responsibilities” (Navarre Bible commentary)  


Suggested means for overcoming gluttony include: 1) Eating only at prescribed times--- no snacking between meals. 2) Eating simple meals: don’t be too picky! 3) Leaving the table with room for more. Or more succinctly, by being careful about what and how much we eat or drink.


Finally, it helps to remember Jesus’ words: “I am the living bread that came down from Heaven, if any man eats of this bread, he shall live forever.” (John 6:51-52)

Ave crux, spes unica. "Hail to the Cross, our only hope."

Sources for this essay include Victory over Vice, by Fulton Sheen, Sin Revisited, by Solange Hertz, and two talks by Fr. John Hardon titled Penance and Reparation: a Lenten Meditation and The Seven Capital Sins, part 1.

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