Fasting in the Footsteps of Christ

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In the Footsteps of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Saints

Ignatians fast because we follow Christ who fasted: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness…and after He had fasted forty days and forty nights…” (Mt 4:1) As Benedict XVI commented: “Like Moses, who fasted before receiving the tablets of the Law (Ex 34,28) and Elijah’s fast before meeting the Lord on Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19,8), Jesus, too, through prayer and fasting, prepared Himself for the mission that lay before Him, marked at the start by a serious battle with the Tempter.”

Moreover, Christ commanded us to fast if we are to fulfill our mission as His co-workers: “But this kind [of demon] can be cast out in no other way except by prayer and fasting.”  (Mark 9:29)

Indeed, the entire Old and New Testament tells us clearly that renewal of the soul will occur only through spiritual warfare in which fasting has a privileged place.

The saints teach us this by their lives. By fasting they united themselves more closely to God, became more alert to His providential plan, and brought their bodies into union with their Christian spirit: “While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.” (Acts 13:2)

Was there ever a saint who did not fast? Indeed, many of them were authentic warriors in practising it, St. John Vianney for instance.

Fasting: Powerful Sword of the Spirit

Fasting is “a spiritual weapon to do battle against every possible disordered attachment to ourselves”, a “therapy to heal all that prevents [us] from conformity to the will of God”, which “assists us to mortify our egoism and open our heart to love of God and neighbor”.  (Benedict XVI)

“Fasting is most intimately connected with prayer. For the mind of one who is filled with food and drink is so borne down as not to be able to raise itself to the contemplation of God, or even to understand what prayer means.” (Catechism of the Council of Trent)

 Fasting in the Church’s history has been the chief form of asceticism recommended by the saints. If done wisely, it does not damage the body – indeed, within sensible limits, it is quite healthy – but it certainly brings unruly egotism under the control of the faculty of the will guided by the Natural Law and enlightened by the truths of the Faith.

Threefold Purpose

As St. Thomas Aquinas stated:

“An act is virtuous through being directed by reason to some virtuous good. Now this is consistent with fasting, because fasting is practiced for a threefold purpose.

“First, in order to bridle the lusts of the flesh, wherefore the Apostle says (2 Corinthians 6:5-6) “in fasting, in chastity,” since fasting is the guardian of chastity. For, according to Jerome [Contra Jov. ii.] “Venus is cold when Ceres and Bacchus are not there,” that is to say, lust is cooled by abstinence in meat and drink.

“Secondly, we have recourse to fasting in order that the mind may arise more freely to the contemplation of heavenly things: hence it is related (Daniel 10) of Daniel that he received a revelation from God after fasting for three weeks.

“Thirdly, in order to satisfy for sins: wherefore it is written (Joel 2:12): “Be converted to Me with all your heart, in fasting and in weeping and in mourning.” The same is declared by Augustine in a sermon (De orat. et Jejun. [Serm. lxxii (ccxxx, de Tempore)]): “Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, kindles the true light of chastity.” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 147, article 1)

“Fasting is directed to two things, the deletion of sin, and the raising of the mind to heavenly things. Wherefore fasting ought to be appointed specially for those times, when it behooves man to be cleansed from sin, and the minds of the faithful to be raised to God by devotion: and these things are particularly requisite before the feast of Easter, when sins are loosed by baptism, which is solemnly conferred on Easter-eve, on which day our Lord’s burial is commemorated, because “we are buried together with Christ by baptism unto death” (Romans 6:4).

“Moreover at the Easter festival the mind of man ought to be devoutly raised to the glory of eternity, which Christ restored by rising from the dead, and so the Church ordered a fast to be observed immediately before the Paschal feast; and for the same reason, on the eve of the chief festivals, because it is then that one ought to make ready to keep the coming feast devoutly.

“Again it is the custom in the Church for Holy orders to be conferred every quarter of the year (in sign whereof our Lord fed four thousand men with seven loaves, which signify the New Testament year as Jerome says [Comment. in Marc. viii]): and then both the ordainer and the candidates for ordination, and even the whole people for whose good they are ordained, need to fast in order to make themselves ready for the ordination. Hence it is related (Luke 6:12) that before choosing His disciples our Lord “went out into a mountain to pray”: and Ambrose [Exposit. in Luc.] commenting on these words says: “What shouldst thou do when thou desirest to undertake some pious work since Christ prayed before sending His apostles?” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 147, article 5)