Most of the attention given to Ash Wednesday revolves around the ashes placed on our foreheads by a priest or minister.
But the other — and much more important — practice associated with Ash Wednesday is fasting. It is one of two days a year, along with Good Friday, that Catholics are required to fast.
Many of us confuse abstaining from meat on Fridays with fasting, when actually, fasting is choosing to refrain from eating at least a certain amount of food for a set amount of time, oftentimes refraining from eating altogether.
We have seen this practice through our traditions and families, but many of us fast only out of obligation because “this is what we have always done.” The beauty and art of this spiritual practice had become lost, until a recent rise in spiritual devotion from laity seeking greater personal holiness.
Fasting is meant to be different. We receive much more than we give up when we fast, and understanding what it truly is can help make this a Lent unlike any other.
To understand this spiritual weapon, we have to look back, way back to the Garden of Eden.
When Eve was tempted to eat the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden described in Genesis, she “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6). If you look closely, this verse explains the ways that we are tempted across the board.
First, the tree was good for food, and Eve was tempted against her flesh, in other words, tempted with something because it would satisfy a bodily appetite. Second, the tree was pleasing to the eyes.
With this, Eve was tempted to have something as a possession; some material object to satisfy her longing for something exterior to herself. Finally, the tree was desirable to make one wise. Wisdom is an attribute of God, something that elevates him. In this, Eve was being tempted with pride; she was tempted to want to make something special of herself apart from God.
Eve’s dilemma perfectly illustrates the three ways in which we humans are tempted: one, against our flesh with things such as sloth, anger, sexual lust, gluttony, impatience, and other things that we think will make us feel good in a sensual way (or keep us from discomfort or pain); two, with possessions or material goods — that new phone, house, or car — thinking that owning something new will satisfy our longings and often results in us becoming attached to material possessions; or three, simply with pride, having the “all eyes on me” mentality, putting ourselves before others or even before God.
If you think about it, any sin can fit within these three categories, which describe our relationships to our flesh, to creation, and to God.
In his first epistle, St. John the Evangelist picks up on this theme. In theology it is called the “threefold concupiscence,” the threefold fallenness that all people have, pulling them toward sin.
“For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world,” he says. (1 John 2:16). This has been a problem from the beginning, through Jesus’ time, and even now.
Luckily for us, the Catholic Church has a remedy: the three pillars of the spiritual life. These pillars, fasting, almsgiving, and prayer, each correspond to one part of the three temptations. Fasting is a remedy to the lust and temptations of the flesh.
In today’s culture, fasting seems like a thing of the past or merely an obligation. But looking at the problem of our temptations, truly it is more of a medicine! What a beautiful spiritual practice that can bring us closer to God and help us gain mastery of ourselves through discipline and willing self-denial.
It is very simple, but what can change everything in your spiritual life is intentionality. If fasting changes from something done halfheartedly out of obligation to something done intentionally with love, it can bring you to a closeness to God you have never ad before.
This example can be seen right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Immediately after the baptism in the Jordan River, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry” (Matthew 1:1-2).
After 40 days, of course he would be hungry! But the real message here is that it was the Spirit who led Jesus into the desert to fast and that this fasting, along with the words of Scripture, was Jesus’ weapon against spiritual attack! Interestingly enough, while Jesus is tempted by the devil, he is tempted with food, material wealth and power, and fame. These three types of temptation sound very familiar.
As followers of Jesus, we follow his example in fasting to become closer to God and to fight off the attacks of the enemy, just as Moses fasted for 40 days before receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.
Fasting is given to us as a gift, as a remedy to help rid ourselves of the attachment to sensual pleasure. But it is given as more than that! Fasting is also meant to help us gain mastery over our flesh, in order that temptations and physical appetites do not have control over us, but rather we over them.
To understand fasting, it is necessary to look back to Eden, but the practice brings us forward in our redemption as we await in the hope of the Resurrection.