Fasting: A Source of Trial

Lent is a season of prayer and fasting, a time for conversion of the heart. As in all things, the Christian looks to Christ’s example and seeks his grace to be able to follow him. To look to Christ means, first, to see and hear him in the Gospel. We will hear Jesus ask us to take up the cross daily and follow him. In the Gospel, Jesus insists on the interior aspect: his Father who sees you in secret, will reward you.

Blessed Newman explains how we imitate Christ by fasting,[1] but begins by recounting the fasting by Moses and Elijah, which prefigured Christ’s self-denial. Newman teaches us that we need God’s grace and love to be able to fast in a fruitful manner. Without grace, faith, and love, our fasting and penance is done in vain.

Turning to the line of great Christian authors, Newman explains that through fasting we mystically reiterate the life of Jesus, beginning with his birth. Through faith we are invited to share in Christ’s life, including the temptations which occurred after his period of fasting.

In Newman’s words, as Christ’s little ones, we are to be possessed by His presence as our life, our strength, our merit, our hope, our crown; and to become in a wonderful way His members: the instruments, or visible form, or sacramental sign, of the One Invisible Ever-Present Son of God. In this way, we are mystically reiterating in each of us all the acts of His earthly life, His birth, consecration, fasting, temptation, conflicts, victories, sufferings, agony, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension;—He being all in all,—we, with as little power in ourselves, as little excellence or merit, as the water in Baptism, or the bread and wine in Holy Communion; yet strong in the Lord and in the power of His might.

To share in Christ’s life means to share our whole selves – our body and our spirit. Newman explains how these two are joined in this act of self-denial. Fasting, however, produces weakness, and the person loses some command of his body through this weakness. Thus, he may become more irritable, less patient, and quite uncharitable. Paradoxically, he thus exposes himself and opens the door to temptation. While fasting becomes an approach to God, at the same time it opens the way to the invisible world of evil. Newman comments that “in some wonderful unknown way they open the next world for good and evil upon us, and are an introduction to somewhat of an extraordinary conflict with the powers of evil.”

Satan may even suggest thoughts to our minds that are terrible and which we abhor. Newman notes, “but has not One gone before us more awful in His trial, more glorious in His victory? He was tempted in all points “like as we are, yet without sin.” Surely here too, Christ’s temptation speaks comfort and encouragement to us.” In the physical and spiritual battle that sometimes occurs during our fast, we can be victorious with God’s grace if we act with faith and humility.

Thus, in our fasting, we must not forget its main purpose: to unite ourselves with Christ. This personal act and other forms of self-denial are not ends in and of themselves. Rather, in and through these practices, we allow Christ to live in us. If we do so, we will find that we can then imitate Christ, who gave his life for us, in giving ourselves in service of others.

As God’s children we must beg our Father for the grace to live well this season of penance and conversion. At the same time we must exercise moderation in fasts and other sacrifices, and seek advice in spiritual direction regarding these Lenten practices.

[1] John Henry Newman, “Fasting, A Source of Trial” in Parochial and Plain Sermons.

Fr. Juan R. Vélez, author of Passion for Truth, the Life of John Henry Newman (St. Benedict's Press, 2011). He writes at www.cardinaljohnhenrynewman.com

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