A ‘Weigh’ in for Grace: Inviting Jesus Into Your Lenten Fast
COMMENTARY: Jesus is the one our soul truly hungers for.
Lent is not a diet. That seems obvious enough in black and white, but in life, as opposed to print, it’s easy to conflate the two.
Case in point: my Instagram feed. For weeks now, it’s been filled with images of simple soups and spendy salads, paired with detailed captions about the benefits of a low-carb Lent and hopes of a slimmer waistline come Easter.
I am sympathetic to the desire for a slimmer waistline. I desire one myself. But the Church doesn’t call us to fast for 40 days (and a little more), so that we can drop a jean size. That’s not the goal. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be.
So what is the goal?
The goal of fasting, during Lent and every other day of the year, is to draw closer to Jesus. It’s to become more like him, to be transformed by him and conformed to him. It’s also to help us develop the spiritual strength we need to turn away from all the bad habits of mind and action that get in the way of that transformation.
Each of us, remember, is a union of body and soul. We don’t “have” a body; we are a body. My body is me. Your body is you. Your soul animates your body, and your body makes your soul visible in the world. Or, as St. John Paul II wrote, “The body expresses the person.” The two were made to go together. They were made to work together, with the soul governing the actions of the body and the body’s actions shaping the soul’s disposition.
Original sin threw things off, though, and, now, our bodies tend to rule our souls, with physical desires often trumping spiritual desires. We may sleep when we should get up and work. We decide to watch television when we should be outside with our kids. We want to eat half a gallon of ice cream instead of settling for just one scoop.
Everything, however, has not been undone by original sin. Our bodies still have the ability to affect our souls. When we do bad things with our bodies, we damage our souls. When we do good things with our bodies, we help our souls. We become less like Christ or more like Christ, in part, through the actions of our bodies.
Grace also reaches us through our bodies. Sanctifying grace, the life of God, isn’t directly infused into our souls from on high. Instead, it comes to us through matter — the waters of baptism, the oil of confirmation and, above all, the bread and wine that become Body and Blood. That grace-soaked matter then comes to us through our body, passing through it almost as if it were a doorway to our soul.
It’s that relationship which makes fasting such an effecting tool for spiritual growth.
Fasting gives us a way to atone for our sins: It allows us to use our bodies to not just tell God we’re sorry, but show him we’re sorry by denying ourselves something good for love of him.
Fasting also gives us a way to put right our disordered desires. Our reason is supposed to be guiding our actions, but often it’s our fear, anger, insecurity or desire for power, fame, sex or food that runs the show. By denying one of those desires — the desire for food — fasting helps put reason back in charge.
In that, fasting helps us grow in virtue. It forces us to flex our spiritual muscles and grow stronger as we resist temptation in the form of an extra piece of cheesecake. Muscles toned by controlling one appetite — hunger — can then help us control other appetites: anger, revenge, greed, praise, power, pleasure and lust. As the fifth-century monk John Cassian put it: “It is impossible to extinguish the fires of concupiscence without first restraining the desires of the stomach.”
And when we struggle or fail in fasting? When we give in and eat the last chocolate brownie sitting all by its lonesome in our pantry? Well, that teaches us humility. In our struggles and failures, we realize what weak creatures we really are and how on our own we can’t do anything good, even in our ability to say no to a brownie.
In that, fasting drives us to prayer. It forces us to call upon God for help and thank him for all the help he gives us daily. And as we pray, fasting makes our prayers more powerful, bringing the whole person into the prayer, so we’re praying not just with our hearts and minds, but with our bodies. It is, in a sense, a consecration of the whole person to prayer.
Through it all, fasting helps us remember who we are: weak, frail, hungry men and women dependent upon God’s grace. When we fast with a mind for God, and not our bodies, the hunger we experience reminds us of our fundamental neediness, not just for food, but ultimately for God.
And so, this Lent, fast. But don’t do it for your body. Do it for your soul. Do it to grow closer to Jesus. Forget about the scales, and focus on him instead, inviting Jesus into your Lenten fast.
When you are hungry, don’t think about your weight; think about Jesus hungering, both in the desert and on the cross. When you are tempted to break your fast, don’t white knuckle it through; ask Jesus to feed you with his grace and love. When you are struggling with your fast, don’t beat yourself up; remember that every hunger, every desire, save for one, is insatiable. We cannot be filled by bread or wine or music or television or clothes or sex. We are always going to want more. We are always going to get hungry or bored or curious again.
Those constant hungers and desires, however, can point us to Jesus, who is the one our soul truly hungers for. Only he can fill us. Only he can save us. That’s why he hung on a cross, on the first Good Friday, hungering in body and soul, for our salvation. And that’s why, through our hunger, we can find the One who hungers for us.
Emily Stimpson Chapman writes from Pittsburgh.