Lent is a time of fasting. It is a time to prepare for the celebration of the Paschal Mystery, the summit of the liturgical year. It is to commemorate the forty days of retreat and fasting of our Savior before His public ministry.

To fast is to set a period of not eating or of not eating certain kinds of food or of eating with moderation.

Believers of many religions practice fasting. They all understand that mortification of the desires of the body can increase our spiritual strength.

The Code of Canon Law for the universal Church designates Fridays and Lent as periods of fasting. But it also allows the pastors of local churches to make concrete directives for the details of observing fasting. The Hong Kong Catholic Church Directory states on page 528 the regulation laid down by the late Cardinal John B. Wu:

The faithful may be dispensed from abstinence on Fridays, on condition that on these days they perform special acts of charity or piety, such as making personal sacrifices in the matter of food, alcoholic drink, smoking, or spending less time on amusements (e.g., watching TV, playing Mahjong, etc.), or making a sacrifice of their free time in serving the poor, the sick, the elderly, the lonely, and the needy. In addition to this, during Lent, they are exhorted to make a special effort in the practice of works of piety, such as daily Mass, daily visits to the Blessed Sacrament, or the Stations of the Cross. As regards Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the traditional fast and abstinence are to be kept.

So it is clear that it is a misunderstanding to say that our diocese has dispensed the obligation of fasting.

Of course, many people in our time practice fasting. They do this for their health, to lose weight, and to avoid overeating or unbalance in their diets. Pope Benedict XVI reminded us of the religious meaning of fasting: to mortify our desire to eat in order to increase our spiritual strength. The spiritual strength helps us to return to God.

Human beings are a unity of body and soul. We should not oppose the body and the soul. But it is undeniable that if we do not control the desires of the body, if we do not give up certain enjoyment, we deprive our souls. Pope Benedict XVI said, “Fasting is a great help to avoid sin. . . . Since all of us are weighed down by sin and its consequences, fasting is proposed to us as an instrument to restore friendship with God.”

Fasting helps us to listen more clearly to the Word of God and not to lead selfish lives, so as to live for God, who has given His life for us. Jesus fasted for forty days. The devil tempted Him and asked Him to change stones into bread. Jesus answered, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”

Already in Paradise, God had ordered our first parents to fast by forbidding them to eat off the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. “Knowledge of good and evil” is to decide for oneself what is good and evil. Fasting is to obey, to take the will of God as the measure of good and evil.

God is love. Love is the only true value. Only to act for love is meaningful.

Jesus said:

When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to others to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you. (Matt. 6:16–18)

Fasting for others to see and to get praise is vanity and is not done out of love. Fasting has meaning only if it is done out of the love for God.

What good do our fasting and mortification do for God? None of our actions can bring any good to God. He is infinitely perfect. He does not need anything from us. He wants only our love. He wants to be our God. He wants us to be His people. Fasting repairs our lack of love in the past and expresses our regret. Fasting strengthens our will and prepares us to sacrifice for love.

Whatever we do for love is not measured by the greatness or the smallness of the act itself. The two tiny coins of the widow have infinite value because of love (Mark 12:41–43).

St. Paul said:

If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor. 13:1–3)

What has my fasting got to do with others? In itself, it has nothing. But if I am not used to mortifying myself, I am not ready to make any sacrifice for others. Our hearts are limited. If they are filled with selfishness, there is no place for love. Mortification opens our hearts. We can embrace all those who need our love. Between “treating oneself with strictness” and “treating others with magnanimity” there is a certain proportionality. The more we can give up some material enjoyment, the more we are ready to care for others. To experience the hardship of fasting enables us to feel greater sympathy for those who live in hunger.

Fasting can help us to love God and to love our neighbors. How can we say that fasting is out of date?


This article on Cardinal Zen on Temptation is adapted from the book Cardinal Zen’s Lenten Reflections by Cardinal Joseph Zen which is available from Sophia Institute Press.

Art for this post on a reflection from “Cardinal Zen’s Lenten Reflections” by Cardinal Joseph Zen: cover used with permission; Photo by Kamil Szumotalski on Unsplash

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