Offering Yourselves to Others
I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.
The above quote from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans gets at the heart of fasting. Christians are not masochists who enjoy suffering for its own sake. Rather, at the heart of our fasting is to make ourselves more a gift offered for a pleasing, spiritual worship. When we fast, we recognize that we live not firstly for this world, but rather for the next life.
I know that in my own life when I am too comfortable I can ignore the needs of others. I can forget how much it is I depend on God. I can turn my back on the sufferings of others. I can believe the good things that are happening to me are the result of my effort and not because of the grace of God.
And so while fasting should not be limited to Lent, it receives a special focus during the season of Lent, since Lent is ultimately about our conversion. By prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we deepen our connection to Jesus, and to the community of believers. Moreover, these aspects of Lent help us to take our rightful place as evangelizers, sharing the way the Good News has changed our lives.
You are living stones
Church as the Body of Christ
So one theme that comes back for Saint Paul more than once is the idea that there is a profound and intimate relationship between Jesus and His bride, the Church. But even in unpacking what it means to be the Church there remains the question of how it is that believers are connected to each other.
In the next verse of Romans, Paul writes, “For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another.” So just as stones that are joined together to make a building, so it is that we, as followers of Jesus, are joined together by the Holy Spirit.
Saint Paul uses this image in a more familiar way in his First Letter to the Corinthians. And so what is most clear is that all Christian believers are connected to one another. But Matthew 25 takes this even further. It is not just that all believers are connected, but the way we treat any other person is the way we treat Jesus Himself.
Now we make sacrifices, a type of fasting, for a bunch of reasons. Some of these are loving, like the sacrifice parents make for their children, but it can also be the case that someone sacrifices other interests only for the purpose of job advancement motivated by greed.
Christian Fasting is Connected to Prayer
So while there are many ways in which humans might make sacrifices, when Christians fast is serves firstly as a means to grow into deeper relationship with Jesus. When I fast from something, like food, I am to be reminded that my real hunger should always be to please God. I should really hunger for that relationship with God that can make me whole.
For when I make myself uncomfortable for a spiritual purpose, it is then I am reminded that I need Jesus to heal my brokenness and forgive my sin. Fasting can help me to discover where it is I need to grow in generosity (which we will explore more fully tomorrow) and the ways in which I think I can live without God and God’s grace.
And when it is I think I no longer need God in my life, I am primed for a life of sin. When I turn my back on my need for the grace of God, then I can become prideful. Let’s consider the story of the Tower of Babel in the Book of Genesis.
At first glance, it may seem like this is a story of people engaged in using their human talents for a good thing. They wish to build something magnificent. How is their desire any different from generations of people who have built massive cathedrals and basilicas which are a showcase of great human talent?
To see the problem, we need to read carefully the motivation for the building. In the Old Testament, the magnificent Temple was built for God. In the Middle Ages the beautiful cathedrals and basilicas were made to glorify God. But the Tower of Babel was proposed so that they could “make a name for ourselves.“
And in the life of faith, we must recognize the importance of being guided by the grace of God. All that we do, even if it has benefit for ourselves and our families, for example, is done in order that we might answer our vocational call received in our baptism. And so from time to time it becomes important for us to take a step back to remind ourselves of our dependence on the God who loves us.
Otherwise we can be like the foolish child who thinks he is so grown up he no longer needs anyone else’s help. Parents see glimpses of this in their children at various stages of their life. How often can it be the case the toddler wants to do things only in one way? What about the grumpy middle school student who ignores all advice, or the adolescent who in moody outbursts withdraws from all help?
And if we do not check ourselves, we can be no different when it comes to God. We can withdraw, we can become moody, we can ignore the advice of God and His Church. But when we fast, and we pray about our fast and during it, we acknowledge our dependence on God. We state in words and actions that we cannot live without the help of God.
Fasting Helps Us Commit To God
I am a broken human being. I have fallen short of the person God has made me to be because I have sinned. Lent, by helping us to prepare to celebrate the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, helps me to know in what ways I live because of Jesus, I die because of sin, and I rise when I ask for the mercy and forgiveness of God because of my desire to repent.
So by sacrificing, be it by skipping a meal, not using something that makes my life easier, I can enter into the spiritual practice of asceticism. Now it is important to note that the word has been abused to suggest extreme penances or self-denial that is not only unhelpful, and can be in fact abusive.
So as it gets discussed, it is quite important to note that what will discuss here is asceticism that is geared toward virtue, and not to dangerous self-denial. The word comes from the Greek that implies the type of training done by an athlete to prepare for a sport. For Christians, asceticism is the type of “training” that helps us to grown in virtue.
So here are some examples. If I want to grow in charity, then it becomes important for me to train myself in the act of being charitable. And when I fast, I become more aware of what it can be to go without, and therefore find myself more charitable when I encounter someone who goes without.
And so while fasting may not always be easy, it is always geared to strengthening our relationship with Jesus. It is a way to help us see in a clearer way to see our need for ongoing conversion. And it is in this sense that we are called to think about fasting during Lent.
The Type of Fasting Desired by God
Consider how the prophet Isaiah helps us to see what type of fasting God does not desire. “Is this the manner of fasting I would choose, a day to afflict oneself? To bow one’s head like a reed, and lie upon sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?”
And then consider how in the next verse, the prophet Isaiah tells us exactly what type of fasting we are to do. “Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking off every yoke? Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own flesh?”
We fast not simply to afflict our selves for the sake of afflicting ourselves, but rather we fast so that we can recognize our needs to release those bound unjustly, setting free the oppressed, sharing our bread with the hungry and bringing in the afflicted and homeless into our house. In other words, when we fast, we not only are drawn closer to God, but we see the Christ in all those who suffer.
Fasting, then, at its heart is about setting our selves right with God and others. This is why I think it important not simply to kind of stumble into Lent, but to really bring our Lenten preparation to the Lord so that we can ask him to help us to shed our sinfulness through his mercy and forgiveness, and to see more clearly through his wisdom, and to live more like him through his grace.
Bible Verses to Ponder
Reflection Questions to Ponder
How do you think you are able to offer the type of sacrifice acceptable to the Lord this Lent?
In what ways can the penance you choose for Lent bring you closer to the Lord?
What types of actions would help to turn your eyes to the needs of the poor and outcast?
How have you become too comfortable in your faith?
If Jesus were to say to you, Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel, what would you be turning away from?
Heavenly Father, we praise and glorify your name. We praise you because you have given us so many blessings, even if we do not always see these blessings. We thank you for the gifts and talents you have given to us, gifts that we can use to help others. We praise you Lord for the people you have sent into our lives to teach us how it is we can be more generous, those who have taught us to be more faithful and true to you.
We also know Lord God, that sometimes we are selfish, we turn our backs away from you. We choose tour own comfort, even at the expense of others. Sometimes we are greedy and selfish, and want only good things for ourselves. And yet we know, O Lord, that you have made us in your image and likeness, and you call us to imitate you and to act and love like you.
Help us to grow to be more like you. Help us to grow in your love and help us to love more and more like you love.
And so we make this prayer in the name of your son, Jesus, for He is Your Son, You sent Him to save us, you showed us your overwhelming love for each of us by having Him die on the cross for us. In His name we pray. Amen.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Other Helps to Grow in the Spiritual Life
Participate in the Friar Book Club, where you can read along with the Confessions of Saint Augustine, and soon the Meditations for Time of Retreat and the Companion to the Summa by Walter Farrell, OP.
Search our website for devotional prayers. You can ask for people and the friar to pray for you, and you can pray for others. There are three ways you can pray the rosary. You can pray the traditional rosary (the one you may have learned as a child). But you can also pray the rosary in a tradition that comes from the Dominicans or you can pray the rosary in a tradition that comes from the Lasallians. All of the links to the rosary come with audio recordings so that you can pray the rosary in the car, on your way to work, or anytime you are otherwise occupied.
There will be other resources which you can find as well. The high school students I teach and work with will offer a reflection each day. Of course all those who ask me to pray should know that I do each day, twice a day.
And sometimes it is helpful to know what is going on in the Church, and so from time to time I post news stories from the Church too. I pray that all of you will find a deep and fulfilling personal relationship with Jesus. Nothing is more important or able to change your life than that. And I pray that this relationship with Jesus changes your life in every way. It can.
When you see the world as God sees the world, it does not mean there are not hard times or that there is not still suffering and sin, but it does mean that none of these things do you need to experience on your own. Be sure to come back tomorrow.