Fasting, one of the three pillars of Lent, empties us in such a way as to make more room for God. So said Bishop Solis in his homily on the first Friday of Lent.
This is not a new observation; others throughout our Catholic history have said much the same in slightly different words, but regardless of how the sentiment is phrased it reflects the truth that the penitential practices of Lent are intended to turn us from sin and toward Jesus the Christ, whose name means “God saves” and whose title is the anointed one, the messiah, the promised one who will save us from sin and lead us to salvation.
Christ himself is the inspiration for our Lenten fast: Prior to undertaking the public ministry that would lead to his death by crucifixion, he withdrew to the desert for 40 days. According to St. Matthew, at the end of this time, our Lord he was hungry.
We, too, are meant to be hungry after our time in the Lenten desert, which is intended to instill a yearning not for meat and drink but for God. Fasting helps us master our animal instincts, kills the god who is our belly, teaches us that indeed we do not live by bread alone.
This response to temptation, however, can only be given if we have fasted properly. If we take pride in depriving ourselves, we have already earned our reward, for as the psalmist says, “My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.”
The contrite Spirit hungers for God, realizing that he alone can provide. Unlike the Hebrews, who sought food in the wilderness, the manna we seek at Lent is not sustenance for our belly but for our spirit. We fast from food to teach us how to fast from sin.
“We need to have the courage to reject all that leads us astray,” Pope Francis said in his Lenten message, and cannot good food and drink lead us away from God, especially when we care so much about what we eat that we neglect to be concerned about those who have not even a crumb for their table?
One result of fasting is that it provides a means of saving resources to give to the poor; it also gives us the opportunity to experience the poverty of the destitute.
As Pope a Francis says, “Fasting wakes us up. It makes us more attentive to God and our neighbor. It revives our desire to obey God, who alone is capable of satisfying our hunger.”
An easy way to gain first-hand experience of poverty is to live on the $4.20 per day allotted through food stamps, or what is now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Despite popular misconception, this program provides scarcely enough money for food. For less than many people spend of coffee each day, people enrolled in the SNAP program must manage to stretch to three meals.
Here are a few facts about SNAP, a federal program that is in danger of being cut in the current budget process:
• To qualify for SNAP, a single person must have a monthly income of $1,287 or less; elderly/disabled households may have an income of $1, 634 (for a family of four, the amounts are $2,633 and $3,342);
• In Utah, about 53,000 Utahns are enrolled in SNAP; of those, 52 percent are children, 12 percent are people with disabilities and 6 percent are senior citizens.
• In 86 percent of the Utah families receiving SNAP benefits, at least one adult was employed;
• While the federal average SNAP benefit is $4.20 per person per day, in Utah the average SNAP benefit is $3.85 per person per day.
In his Angelus a couple of weeks ago, Pope Francis said that in our daily life “We need to have the courage to reject all that leads us astray.” Failing to have compassion for our neighbors who live in poverty leads us far from God. Almsgiving is possible only for those who have fasted from their own self-centeredness, who have developed a contrite heart that seeks to do the will of God. We are called not only to proclaim the good news to the poor, but also to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit those in prison, comfort the sick and bury the dead.
Along these lines, St. John Chrysostom gave us a powerful Lenten message to ponder: “No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.”
Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic.