While fasting imposed in Judaism is mostly an ascetic discipline destined to mortify the body, Christians quickly attributed it a different significance. It has essentially been transformed into an act of repentance, conversion, and charity — moderating one’s own eating habits to feed the hungry. It is something we continue to do today as throughout Lent people give to the needy.
There have always been those who wonder whether this demonstration of brotherly generosity is not more important than fasting recommended by the Church during Lent. After all, isn’t it what the Lord commands us to do? “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:15)
The benefits fasting offers to the body and the soul
Fasting, along with prayer and almsgiving, is one of the three endeavors that Jesus insistently recommends us to accomplish “in discretion” (Mtt. 6:1-18). This is why in the beginning of every Lenten period the Church always invites us to follow a resolution along those three lines. If you need encouragement to fast, think of its benefits.
Fasting unburdens the body and the mind: it allows us to get rid of bad fats, so you fall asleep faster and contributes to the clarity of mind, so you can read, and pray more easily. The hunger you feel will make you think of the millions around the world who never have enough on their plate. This may compel you to do something for them and consume responsibly. Instead of stuffing yourself with junk food, you can replace it with good sustenance, like the Word of God. When you fast to show love to the Lord, you may (like St Paul (2Co 5:5) come into possession of multiple virtues, for example, the conversion of sinners. “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” (Col. 1:24).
Although you should abstain from boasting about your “feats” in this domain, it’s worthwhile to work together to become more altruistic: for example as a family during Lent you may keep a similar fast or abstain from something together. (Keep in mind that children under 14, pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, and people with health concerns are exempt from fasting.) You can lend your support to the kids so they have an easier time to go without dessert.
But you must also show more tolerance for all those who don’t see the importance of fasting or making sacrifices. It would be lamentable if a Christian observing a strict fast mocked or criticized his or her neighbor who is not doing the same.
Father Pierre Descouvemont
How fasting sets us free both physically and spiritually