Fasting and Mourning

We are a few days into Lent now and it’s possible you’ve been asked (or have asked yourself), “What are you doing/giving up for Lent?” While the practices of fasting and abstinence are rich with history and meaning, it can be easy for these practices to become ritualistic and to not have much depth.

Today’s readings are perfectly timed at the beginning of the Lenten season as they give us a deeper meaning to the practice of fasting.

Today’s Gospel is short and sweet:

The disciples of John approached Jesus and said, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast much, but your disciples do not fast?" Jesus answered them, "Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast." 

In typical fashion, Jesus answers a fairly direct question in a way that is simple yet powerful. Fasting, in his explanation, is not just a ritualistic act. He talks about fasting in terms of mourning. Lent is such a somber time in the Church calendar because it represents a time of mourning. We mourn for a life lost. We mourn because the bridegroom has been taken away from us. This is not meant to keep us in a space of guilt and darkness, but to remind us of the lengths that God will go to reconcile us with himself. Ultimately, our fasting is both mourning and a celebration of God’s immense love.

So how do we apply the idea of mourning to our own fasting practices this Lent? First and foremost, let every act of fasting (whether it be things we give up or extra practices) remind us of all that God has done for us. A bit of hunger or inconvenience could be a quick reminder of why we do this in the first place.

Even our “typical” practices of fasting for Lent can be looked at through the lens of mourning. Perhaps I give something up or add a practice because of some mourning of having fallen short in my life. One of the practices that I have taken on for Lent is to give up one item for each day of Lent. This includes clearing out clothes, shoes, books, etc. and donating the items at the end of Lent. While I am essentially spending Lent cleaning my closet, I am trying to make it a more prayerful and reflective process. I wish to live more simply and this practice involves some mourning of the fact that I have not lived as simply as I would like.

Finally, our first reading gives us a great reminder of what fasting is supposed to look like:

This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own. (IS 58: 6-7)

We are called to love both God and neighbor and so in our Lenten mourning we focus on God and his great love for us as well as the love that we owe our neighbors. Our fasting can be an act of mourning for all of the injustices in the world and those afflicted by them. This mourning should always drive us to action. Perhaps the things that we do or give up can be dedicated to those in need. We can give of our time and possessions so that we can show others the love of God this Lenten season (and beyond).

Whatever we do for Lent, let it be with purpose and meaning.

Author: Tucker Redding, SJ, Advancement


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