Fasting: ‘We Do It In Imitation of Jesus’

Understand and live this pillar of Lent more fully this year.

Fasting is a pillar of Lent.
Fasting is a pillar of Lent. (photo: Unsplash)

Going all-in at Lent requires a commitment to fasting. Of the three pillars of Lent — prayer, almsgiving and fasting — fasting is the one that affects us mind, body and spirit. 

Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of fasting and abstinence for the Latin Catholic Church for ages 18 to 59. In addition, Fridays during Lent are days of abstinence from meat from age 14 onwards. Fasting is an important spiritual discipline strengthening our souls and unleashing spiritual power according to three well-known Catholics who spoke with the Register about it.

Passionist Father Cedric Pisegna, author of Your Best Lent Ever! and creator of the “Live With Passion!” website and lecture series, as well as host of EWTN’s 2022 Lenten miniseries, says there are a number of reasons to fast. “We do it in Lent for self-discipline and controlling our appetites,” he said, “and we do it in imitation of Jesus, who fasted for 40 days in the desert.”

Fasting empowers our prayer life, according to the priest. “It weakens our physical body and sharpens our spiritual senses. We believe fasting increases our faith and unites us to the redemptive suffering and death of Our Lord.”

He noted, however, that we should heed the warning in Isaiah 58 not to fast and then to behave badly. “The fast God wants is to loose the bonds of the corporal works of mercy,” he said. “Yes, fast. But make sure you don’t miss the point, which is reaching out and being kind and generous and forgiving. If you are not going to be kind to people, then what is the purpose? And fast not just from food, but from things like gossip and self-deprecation — the way we think of others and ourselves.”

Father Pisegna pointed out that the U.S. Catholic bishops have asked everyone to abstain from meat and fast on all Fridays for the protection of life, marriage and religious liberty. Another reason to fast, he said, is to be in solidarity with the poor and other Catholics. 

In Chapter 18 of the Passionist rule, his order’s founder, St. Paul of the Cross, taught that fasting helps raise our minds to God. “Our body gets weakened, and our spirit gets strengthened, defeating the stratagems of the devil,” Father Pisegna explained. “It is one of the tools of spiritual warfare.”

Regardless of age, he added, we should all tap into the spiritual power available from fasting within our abilities. “All people should try to do something,” he said. “Perhaps miss a meal or cut out sugar.”

“The original sin was in eating, and by fasting, we are doing an antidote to that sin,” explained Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa, author of many books and host of several radio and TV programs, including EWTN Live. According to Father Pacwa, our society promotes overindulgence to the point of gluttony. 

“When you think about ways that people are gluttonous and wasteful, food as sinful is still an issue,” he said. Father Pacwa pointed out that the forbidden fruit was in a situation of great abundance. “We are not a temperate society,” he said. “Temperance is the cardinal virtue of controlling ourselves, curbing appetites and not letting them have control over us. Fasting and abstinence is a way to seek temperance.” 

“Through fasting,” he continued, “we learn to shut off the gratification of impulsive desires. Then seek another kind of satiety that you look for God to fill in you.”

When Father Pacwa hears people say they want to do something positive instead of giving something up, his response is: “But you can do both. It’s not either/or. Fasting and abstaining is a good thing.”

Jeff Cavins, founder of The Great Adventure Bible studies and host of Hallow’s daily Bible reflections and The Jeff Cavins Show, pointed to Scripture as revealing the importance of fasting. 

“It’s a tool given to us by God for something greater,” he said. “Fasting is not the purpose; it is the tool that fights the things we deal with when it comes to sin.” 

Sin began with the fall of Adam and Eve, Cavins said, pointing to Genesis 3:6, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.” As Cavins said, “It’s tasty, beautiful and makes one wise; those are all tremendous goods. The problem was that they chose the good over God; they grasped at creation over the creature.”

Cavins explained that this problem is reiterated in 1 John 2:16: 

“For everything [sinful] in the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life — comes not from the Father but from the world.” 

“That fall led to a state of concupiscence, described by St. Thomas Aquinas as a disordered self-centeredness,” Cavins said. 

The answer to that, he said, is in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7: “Jesus is advancing three forms of piety here: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. That correlates with the temptations in the Garden and the three temptations of Jesus in the wilderness.” Of those temptations, fasting, he said, “helps us to put God over our appetites.”