Why Fast and Abstain During Lent?

Posted: 2/17/2012

by Pat McEntee,
Associate Vocation Director

It seems as though we just put away our Christmas decorations, and here we are already on the verge of Lent.

February 22 marks the beginning of the 40 days that lead up to the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 are asked to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. And Catholics 14 and older are asked to abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays during Lent.

Growing up, I remember being taught many different things about Lent. The one consistent theme was that it was important. The reasons why it was important, and the consequences there might be for not observing the important requirements of the season, varied depending on who was talking.

I'm sure I was told, and thus feared, that I would go to hell if I ate meat on Fridays. As I got older, that was turned into a joke for those times when I'd forget it was Friday and accidentally eat meat. "Well, I guess I might as well enjoy it since I'm going to hell anyway."

I was also taught that if Jesus could die on a cross for me, I could do without meat or a large meal once in a while. Either I was never told the actual reasons we abstain and fast, or I missed them. In my younger years, though, asking "why?" about almost any subject was generally frowned upon.

As I got older, I began to understand the reasons for the Lenten traditions I observed. I came to realize that Lent was designed for us to more closely identify with Jesus. If you read Scripture, you learn that Jesus was tempted when he spent 40 days praying and fasting in the desert. You also learn that at each of the most important moments of his life, Jesus took time to be by himself and pray to God, his Father. This was the only way for Jesus to prepare for the difficult tasks ahead of him. Jesus had to be sure that what he was doing was what God willed.

This, I believe, is the point of the fasting and abstinence rules that we follow during Lent. To know that it is about self-denial is only the beginning. Even though the idea of self-denial is very countercultural in American society, it is what we are asked to do. Frankly, it was countercultural in the time of Jesus. Nearly everything Jesus said and did was countercultural. He was a radical.

Being willing to deny ourselves those things we regularly have at our disposal is a symbol of our being willing to step outside ourselves and perhaps empty ourselves of our own will (what we want)—so that we can be open to God's will and what God wants of us and for us. This is why Catholics are asked to make a Lenten sacrifice beyond the fasting and abstinence we are asked to observe.

Much like when Jesus prayed and fasted in the desert to prepare for his public ministry, we are called during this time to discern the path to which God is leading us. We will undoubtedly be tempted to replace God's will with our own. We can even rationalize that God wants us to be happy and that our own wills make us happy. It is important for us to think of doing God's will rather than our own. If we do, selfish happiness will be replaced by true happiness and joy.

The whole purpose of Lent is to solemnly and steadfastly prepare for the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. We are asked to be like Christ in our words and deeds, even if that means following in his footsteps. Jesus prayed in the garden immediately before his arrest. It is clear that he was not eager to accept what was about to happen to him. He even went so far as to ask his Father, "If it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will" (Mt 26:39). Even in that moment of obvious human fear, Jesus still had the strength to accept what was asked of him—since it was the will of God.

It's true that most of us will not be asked to die for our faith, although some may. Still, there are other ways to lay down one's life for God. When we deny ourselves what we want and what we desire in order to accept what God wants of us and what God desires for us, we will find that we are indeed laying down our lives for the sake of Jesus.

Ask Glenmarians, and you will find that they have gone through this self-denial to answer Jesus' call to self-sacrifice. They have given their lives—not just to serve the poor and marginalized in the mission regions of the United States, but to help bring them to Jesus.