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Fasting: Hunger in the Service of Communion

By Hugh Vincent Dyer O.P.

Posted 2/6/08 at 4:00 PM

Lent is traditionally described as a season of “self-denial.” So we find ourselves thinking about what to give up. We may give up chocolate, or beer, and find ourselves lamenting over them before Lent is over. Others object, and speak instead about “doing something positive” for Lent. Rather than giving something up they advocate taking something up.

Denying self and doing good works is laudable. But by themselves, these practices miss the deeper opportunity of Lent. In these weeks before Easter, Christians will be exhorted to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The key to our season of spiritual betterment is the retreat of Jesus in the desert. Jesus went into the desert to fast. The Lord was tempted in his hunger by Satan. He was tempted to eat and tempted to ambition. In short, he was tempted to consider only himself. Jesus triumphed through his fast.

Fasting is the essence of Lent. Without hunger, we cannot enter into the Lord’s experience, or his triumph. The hunger of our fast stirs up our need for God, and arouses us to feel the pain of our neighbor. Fasting moves us toward God and neighbor, toward prayer and almsgiving.

Fasting is a key to communion. Our holiday meals often begin with the joy of communion; we pray, eat, drink, laugh, and converse. As the meal progresses we start to feel full, get a bit cranky, and push away from the table looking for a couch or chair in which to collapse. Our Lenten fast, on the other hand, leads us into the Paschal Banquet of Easter. Here, we get a foretaste of the love that fills us, but not in a way that leads us to push away from God or neighbor. Fasting draws us out of the heaviness of self while directing us toward God and neighbor with renewed sensitivity to our own need and the needs of others.

Fasting creates a hospitable place within; a place that invites company, divine and human. In this space we begin to realize that we truly live not by bread alone but by the Word of God. His Word is to love, and it is in this communion of love that we find our freedom and identity, together, in Christ.