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Fasting for the Feast

by Jim Wilwerding

Lent comes around every year. The season has a reputation for being a tough time. Three long-standing traditions of Catholic Lenten observance are penance, fasting (and abstinence or not eating meat on Fridays) and giving money to the poor. In one word, Lent is about fasting—in three different ways.

This season includes the 40 weekdays between Ash Wednesday (its beginning) and Holy Saturday. The name of the season comes from the Anglo-Saxon word which refers to the lengthening of the days in the springtime.

As far back as second grade in Catholic school, I remember getting ready for the season of Lent. On Ash Wednesday, the teacher asked each of us to tell the class what we were "giving up for Lent." Giving something up for Lent seemed very important, so we all knew that we wanted to have something impressive to say when it was our turn.

A lot of my classmates were giving up or "fasting" from candy or chocolate. I too opted to eat no candy for those long, long days. A few very impressive folks chose to give up TV for the whole 40 days!

When I entered high school, the idea of giving something up for Lent began to raise questions in my mind—as it might in yours. Questions like "What difference does it make to God whether I eat candy?" plus others about the benefits of my Lenten choices began to surface inside me.

In this Youth Update, we will explore the custom of fasting in Lent, not so much as saying no to "stuff" but as saying yes to the feast of promise that is Easter.

Give It Up

Let's look at these three traditional disciplines of Lent: prayer, giving money to the poor (almsgiving) and fasting (i.e., "giving something up"). The question, "What are you giving up for Lent?", may be heard in your household or in the homily at Mass.

What the Church is inviting you to consider with this question is to look hard at your life to see how you could live with less. What can you let go of or eliminate that will bring you closer to God's Kingdom?

Perhaps you have wondered, as I did, what giving up chocolate, desserts or TV really did to honor God. Fasting in Lent really needs to be different from other ways that you may "give something up."

You could pass up dessert simply because you've had enough to eat or you are on a diet. That's not the Lenten attitude or focus. If you give up desserts for the whole season of Lent, you want to make it an active or positive choice, not simply a no or a deprivation. Make that action into an offering to God rather than simply an act of self-improvement.

When you fast in Lent, you are also invited to think more about those people whose many needs we—as individuals, as a parish or as a Church—may ignore. How many people your own age go to bed each night without having a meal—forget about dessert—that day? How many young people in the world fill their days with work simply so that their family may get by and will never have the free time or the money to enjoy TV? This is not to make you feel guilty but to start you thinking.

The action of fasting is to create an inner hunger. That hunger can take you in one of two directions: 1) it can eliminate the desire for the thing you have given up (breaking a bad habit such as using bad language or fighting with your younger sibling) or 2) it can create a yearning (a stronger desire for the goodness, much like imagining the taste of that first bite of chocolate).

Either of these can bring you closer to God. The important thing is not so much where the fasting leads you but that you set out wanting to go where it may lead you.

It's Simple

Another important question to consider when you fast is "To what are you saying yes?" Author Stephen Covey states simply, "It's easier to say no when there is a deeper yes within."

For instance, you may say no to TV, but you are also saying yes to homework—homework done well. Another yes you may want to include in your Lenten fast is to choose to live more simply.

Simplicity means choosing to pare down, to live with less. While this idea has gotten a lot of attention lately on the talk shows and in the news, the Christian tradition has always called its followers to take a long look at what is really needed and to choose to live with less of what we simply want.

This call to simplicity has led some people to make choices that protect the earth. They cut down their use of natural resources (for example, driving less, doing things that take less electricity), while others have chosen to go through their closets and give what they don't need to the poor.

Simplicity is hard when there are so many messages proclaiming "You can have it all." You are also told that the road to happiness and success is paved with purchases and possessions.

Simplicity may be as basic as looking around and seeing that you are not deciding what you need. You're allowing other pressures to influence your decisions. Depending on where you live and go to school, you may have a different idea—than commercials do—of what you need.

For everyone, the basics of life are food, clothing and shelter. For some, however, food may include three courses each meal, while for others it may be one basic meal and two lighter meals. For some, clothing may mean never wearing anything that is not in style, while others may wear all their clothing until it is completely worn out.

The gospel call is to constantly look at your possessions to distinguish needs from wants. The gospel also calls you to look beyond yourself to see the comparison between your lifestyle and that of those beyond your school or neighborhood.

Jesus' response to the man who asked, "Who is my neighbor?" was to tell the story of the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:25-37). What Jesus was really saying is that everyone in the world is your neighbor.

Saying a Big Yes

Lent invites the crucial choice to take that look at your life and your needs. It's not easy but, when you do it well, you will be changed. You may find also in your fasting that you become more aware of others throughout the world.

When you give something up, you can begin to feel for those who lack basic needs. Whether what you are giving up is big or small, you can begin to see a glimpse of the lives of those people in the world who go without the basics day after day.

Now that you have chosen to simplify your life, if only during Lent, you may find yourself thinking about others who may feel the hunger you feel. You might connect with others at your parish who have also been fasting. You might start noticing who else at school is doing without the things you have chosen to give up. You might even start imagining those people in the world who never get to have what it is you are doing without for 40 days.

You may also find yourself noticing people in your everyday life that you might not have noticed otherwise. You may start to notice the homeless person you pass on the street or the kid at school who wears the same things day after day, the people who are overlooked because they don't have what you have.

This isn't magic but reality. Call it God's gift to those who fast. You might even find that your heart wants you to reach out to these people and do something for them—again, God's gift.

The Church has a tradition in this regard, a tradition that the poor are to be the people we think of first. This is sometimes called the "preferential option for the poor."

Applying this option to your Lent, you may think it's great to be saving all the money you would have spent on chocolate or movies or whatever you now have given up. The Church's challenge is not only that your fasting is a good thing but also that you give preferential treatment to those in need.

You may consider counting up the money you saved and making that into an additional offering to Operation Rice Bowl (see "What We Do" at www.catholicrelief.org) or your local Catholic Worker House or some other group that serves people in need.

Yes to the Feast

Whatever fast you choose during Lent will help you celebrate the richness of Easter in a more complete way. Of this, you can be confident.

Have you ever prepared for a special meal or your favorite dinner by eating less at lunch? You were hoping, probably, to be able to enjoy with gusto the feast awaiting you that evening. You were preparing for the special feast in the same way that the Church prepares for Easter.

I had a friend in high school who had a rule about going to concerts. For two days before the concert, he would not play any music by the group he was going to see. That way, if the artist played the song in concert, it would seem fresh all over again. He was fasting to prepare for the feast of the concert.

If you choose to fast from something really important or special to you, you can create a similar, even better, yearning, a stronger appreciation and sense of thankfulness to God. Maybe there's something in your life that you simply take for granted. By fasting from it for 40 days, you can experience it fresh again on Easter.

This experience of newness is like Easter. Whether it is a new awareness of your needs and the needs of others, a new positive habit to replace an old one or a new outlook on something that has grown familiar, the Easter feast after the Lent fast will sharpen your senses and renew your perspective—on life, on faith and on the feast of Easter.

Riches Poured Out

The heart of our Catholic faith is Easter. On Easter we celebrate a very simple truth that has changed the world. Jesus died and was raised from the dead. He was given new life because he offered his life for us. Jesus was not just given back his life but was given new life. It is a life unlike the life he—and we—have known before.

We talk about our own resurrection—being raised from the dead—and hope to go to heaven. We imagine heaven as a banquet hall, a peace- and joy-filled place, a place where all our hopes and dreams come true.

Our celebration of Easter proclaims our hope in God's desire to take what is offered and change it into a new, overwhelming gift. When we celebrate Easter, we celebrate God's tremendous gift of love to us.

We also proclaim our hope that anything, no matter how small or big, that we offer to God is returned to us a hundred times over. This is the mystery we celebrate at Mass—on Easter but also every time we participate. Everything that we offer to God is returned to us as new and abundant—like the new and abundant life promised us through Jesus' dying and rising from the dead.

When you start to view Lent in this way and begin to see Easter for what it really is, you can see how your giving up chocolate is not simply to lessen the demand for chocolate in the world. You can offer this as a sacrifice to God so that God can take your offering with Jesus' offering on the cross and return it to you with new life.

I'm not talking about God giving you a river of chocolate to swim in. You might notice you are more alive to your connections with others around you or your connection to the poor. You might notice your new life as a peace and joy about living with less. You might notice your new life as a deeper appreciation for the gifts you have in your life. The things you might have taken for granted before, you might now see as gifts.

Heaven's Feast

Lent and Easter are celebrated every year. Because they come around so often, you might also take them for granted by not paying attention to them.

By keeping the Lenten customs each year and really looking forward to and celebrating Easter, you are preparing for the final feast, the feast of heaven. In many ways, our whole lives are the Lent during which we train for the Easter of heaven and our life with God.

As you begin this year's season of Lent, try to think about how your fast is not just giving up something for these 40 days. It is an offering to God and an offering to the world through the poor, through your own growth and through the new life which God will give back to you both during the Easter season (the 50 days following Easter Sunday) and the new life we are promised in heaven.

Jim Wilwerding has been active in youth ministry for over 12 years, most recently as diocesan director of youth ministry in Des Moines, Iowa. He currently lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Deshan Silva (15), Audr—a Glenn (15) and Clarence Glenn (14), three of the Confirmation candidates at St. Monica-St. George Parish in Cincinnati, Ohio, met over pizza to consider this issue of fasting! Ngozi Ndulue, their catechist, also joined the discussion.


Six Tips for Six Weeks

1. LOOK AT YOUR LIFE. Is there something that seems to be holding you back from being the kind of Christian you know you want to be? Maybe for you it is those "must-have" items that take up your money. Maybe it is being too busy for prayer, church activities or service opportunities.

2. ASSESS YOUR RESOURCES. You probably cannot take all of your college savings and send it to the missions. What can you do? Can you give up a night out on the weekends during Lent and offer the savings to the poor? Can you live on less spending money each week? Is there something in your life that you could discard or give away?

3. SAY YES. As Stephen Covey says, "It's easy to say no when there is a deeper yes within." To what are you saying yes by making this commitment? Is there someone who will benefit by your action? Will you be better in some way if you keep this Lenten fast? How? Be specific with your yes.

4. MAKE A PLAN AND SHARE IT. Telling your friends or family about your plan for Lent is not about bragging or seeing who you can impress. It may be helpful to let others know so that they can support you. You may want to make a reminder note for your locker or your mirror.

5. PERSEVERE. After a few weeks (or even days), it may be more difficult to keep your commitment. You may find yourself going back to your old ways. If this happens, don't count this Lent as a loss. Congratulate yourself on the job you did, ask God's help with whatever is hard or tempting about it and start again.

6. OFFER YOUR GIFTS. Make your Lenten fast something that you offer to God. At Mass on Sunday, make your Lenten fast a part of the gifts offered with the bread and wine. Pray often that God take your offering and give it new life at Easter.

When Easter comes, don't forget to celebrate with feasting. Celebrate the ways that you are different, no matter how small they may seem. Celebrate the gift of new life given to us in Jesus' death and resurrection.



You say fasting isn't about food, but you use a lot of food examples. Why is that?


The most common understanding of fasting—really going back to the Hebrew Scriptures—refers to giving up food. Just as Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert (meaning he had the minimum to sustain life), the Church has kept the idea of fasting during Lent. Recently our understanding of this has broadened to see fasting as including other sacrifices as well. I think that food is still the easiest for most of us to understand because we can understand the physical hunger that fasting from food creates.


Why do you talk about 40 days in Lent? Six weeks is longer than 40 days, plus there's Ash Wednesday, too!


I know it can be confusing but, since Sunday is the day that Jesus rose from the dead, the Church has never recommended Sunday as a day of fasting. It is the day of the Resurrection (another Easter) and so a day for feasting, even during Lent.


You didn't say anything about sin. Aren't we supposed to become better during Lent by giving up our sins?


You're right! We are supposed to become better during Lent by giving up our sins. Fasting from sin is a central part of Lent. Giving up those things that keep us from God is the right thing any season of the year. We can become better either by focusing on avoiding sin or by focusing on saying yes to God. Either way, we will need to turn away from those things that interfere with our closeness to God (sin) and turn toward those things that bring us closer to God. By choosing our Lenten fast well, we will accomplish both.


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