So, how’s the fasting going? You are not alone if you’re finding that it is a struggle to give up what you gave up. It’s not just a corporal struggle — at least, it’s not supposed to be. Our purpose in fasting is spiritual. In our daily lives, the world can overwhelm us. We are bombarded by all those things that fill our senses and demand our attention. Both the desires and the genuine needs of our flesh distract from our spiritual growth. Our daily goal — every day — is to grow more perfect in Christ.
So many things get in the way. Fasting isn’t an end in itself. It’s not a good deed by which we merit a reward. Fasting is a means to a spiritual goal. It is a way to make us aware of all the obstacles between us and living like Christ did. Hopefully, our Lenten fast brings spiritual renewal, true repentance and genuine reconciliation. Why, though, do fasts often fail to achieve their intended spiritual ends?
In the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Eastern Catholic rite, Lent begins with Forgiveness Sunday. After the vespers service, the first Lenten act is to ask and offer forgiveness to everyone present in the church and then to expand the act out into the world. This isn’t a vague, general gesture, but individual pleas for forgiveness from one person to another and another, throughout the congregation. Each person bows and asks the other, “Forgive me, a sinner.” And each parishioner responds by also asking for forgiveness and assuring, “God forgives.” Then, in both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Eastern Catholic rite, a very strict dietary fast is undertaken for all of Lent.
I have to think that such a fast is made more possible because it begins with Forgiveness Sunday. Fasting is fruitful when the Lenten garden is sown with the seeds of forgiveness. Reconciliation is at the core of Christianity. In those final moments in the Upper Room, knowing well the sins that would be committed against Him by His friends, Jesus knelt before each and every one and washed feet. He humbled Himself in a gesture of service and sacrifice. He knew what those disciples would do to hurt or betray Him. He knows what we will do to hurt or betray Him. And still He knelt.
Jesus died to forgive us. He showed us how to love; through His forgiveness we can forgive. After He finished washing their feet, Jesus gave to His apostles a new commandment: “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (Jn 13:34-35).
God love us, and He forgives us. He sent us His Son, who kneels and washes our feet, so that by sharing in His humanity, we are truly reconciled and forgiven. When we watch the Teacher in the Upper Room, we learn that the act of forgiveness is an act of pure love. It is living a whole life of pure love that is really the aim of our Lenten fasting.
To fast better, we must forgive better. We have to recognize that what stands between us and the ability to love well is any impediment we hold out against reconciliation — with God and neighbor. If we are struggling with our fasting, let’s begin our Lent anew. This time, let’s start by asking forgiveness of our neighbor. Our selfishness, our envy, our impatience, our indifference are all sins against love. When we ask for forgiveness and we grant forgiveness to one another, we open the floodgates of grace.
Having forgiven one another, we are better able to ask God for forgiveness. That brings us to a fruitful confession. God doesn’t need our confession; we do. Because we have known both repentance and forgiveness in our community, we are able to move closer to loving as Jesus did. Softer, more humbly we approach mercy Himself, where our wounds are bound and our souls are healed. Grace rushes in and then our fasting is more fruitful. Ultimately, it’s not about giving up a hamburger or a Coke. It’s about dying to our passions in order to humble ourselves in front of one another and letting love live.