Fasting should fast become us|
Father Gerard McKee, CMRI
In the sermon for the First Sunday of Lent, Father Gerard emphasizes that we should emulate our Lord in His fasting and extend to all the sense of joy in our fasting, not long faces but an exhilaration that we can participate in His Passion through penance. It is penance that enables us to share His suffering so that we can share in His glory. Fasting is not necessarily only abstaining from certain delights of the palate but guarding the mouth from not only what goes in but what comes out. Charity is the gatekeeper of the lips and heart and in this time of virtual sackcloth and ashes, the more we suppress our curiosity for the things of this world, the more we will be ready for a world of graces and blessings from above. Our Lady confirmed that at Lourdes. Several Doctors of the Church and holy saints affirm this as well, and, no matter the fasting laws, we need to realize fasting begins in the heart and exercising the muscles of self-denial through penance will tone us into saints sooner than later if we stay the course.
One of the things, which Our Lady said to St. Bernadette, besides communicating to her and the importance of making the sign of the cross reverently and praying the rosary, she indicated to St. Bernadette, who was just a child at the time, that she should pray the rosary and Our Lady followed along while St. Bernadette said the Our Father’s and Hail Mary’s and when she came to the Glory be, then Our Lady joined because she is not in need like we are of the petitions of the Our Father and she would not praise herself, but certainly would glorify the most Holy Trinity. Our Lady spoke very few words but some three of the very significant ones that she spoke were the words: “Penance, penance, penance” and she was trying to communicate the idea of the importance of that very necessary spiritual work, which comes right into the theme of today’s sermon, the fact that lent is a time of mortification, it is a time for doing penance. This Holy season commemorates the Passion and sacrifice of Christ in a special way.
The purpose of the liturgical year in general is to contemplate each one of the mysteries of Christ, so as to bring to mind what each one teaches us and renew in our souls the grace of each of these mysteries. Christ’s whole life was a continuous sacrifice, which came to its completion during the sacred Passion. This is commemorated during Lent, especially Passiontide, and most particularly, the last three days of Holy Week, which is called the Sacred Tridiium when we contemplate the mysteries of Our Lord’s Passion and death upon the cross.
The Lenten fast is an inseparable part of this Lenten observance. It imitates the forty-day fast of Christ in the wilderness, the forty-day fast of Moses on Mount Sinai when he went up to receive the Ten Commandments and the forty-day fast of Elias when he walked to Mount Hoard, which in those days was called the Mountain of God. Fasting is especially recommended by the Fathers of the Church. St. Ambrose can speak for them all, and he lived in the early 5th century: “Just as the gates of the Gospel were opened unto you, through the forty days fast of Christ in the desert, so he who desires to enter into the Gospel and collect the fruit of the resurrection, should fulfill the fast, which Moses of the Old Law and Christ in the new indicated as the strong ally or helper of virtue.”
In the early Church, the law of fast was most rigorous. The faithful fasted every day, except Sunday, eating nothing until sunset. In Jerusalem, the daily offering of Mass was suppressed, or suspended, as a sign of mourning. While in Rome, Mass was celebrated each day in a different Basilica by the Pope. The faithful gathered at one church and processed chanting the litanies to this stational church, where the Mass was offered and in some Missals, you will find that it says: “Collecta” or Gathering at a certain church and then a station at another church because they went in procession from one church to the other.
St. Benedict, the patriarch of western monasticism, in his rule advises each one to offer up some special individual sacrifice of mortification such as cutting down of food, drink, sleep or amusement. The spiritual writers tell us that what the devil fears most is when we cut back on our food, drink and sleep because this weakens our fallen human nature, our disorderly inclinations of our fallen human nature and strengthens us in the spirit consequently making us stronger in resisting the assaults of the devil.
The present practice of fasting has been considerably diminished from that which was practiced in the early years of the Church and the last revision of these laws was given in 1956 by the Catholic Bishops of the United States pertaining to fasting in the United States. Although the mind of the Church is that we should do some fasting, if it is possible, during Lent. But if the external observance has diminished, the interior spirit of fasting must remain.
When the Fathers speak of fasting, they stress that first of all, it should be interior and at many times during the Holy season of Lent, if you read the prayers of the Mass for each day of the season, it talks about fasting from sin. This is a repeated thing in many of the Masses. St. Augustine, who also lived around the beginning of the 5th century, wrote: “One will say to you: ‘I cannot fast because it makes me ill’ but who can ever say: ‘I cannot forgive one who has harmed me, or had done me an injury because my health prevents me’?”
St. Isidore says: “If you cannot fast, then alms are sufficient without fasting.” And St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “If only the tongue has sinned, then let it be the tongue alone that fasts, but if all the others also have sinned then why should they not also fast? Let the eyes fast by avoiding curious looks, the ears by not listening to rumors, the tongue from detraction of lies but much more, let the soul fast from its vices and from its own will. We must always do some mortification in order to obtain the full benefits of the Lenten season.”
This season is compared in a spiritual way to spring and nature. Through nature, people that keep gardens cultivate plants and trees to obtain the fruits of them, they go out and hoe up the ground, pull out the weeds, they go to the vines of the fruit trees, and they cut out the dead branches, they cut back the healthy branches so that they can bring forth more fruit and in the spiritual life, this is what we do. We cut off the dead branches of our sins, we prune back the inclinations of our fallen human nature by acts of self-denial, acts of penance, and we pull out the weeds of our faults and sins. We cultivate the ground so that the seed of the word of God, the seed of God’s grace may bear its fruit unhindered.
The best fast of all, is that of charity. Almost everyone of St. Augustine’s sermons mentions honest deeds and the pardoning of our enemies through the principle works of charity. The Epistle of the First Friday of Lent speaks of the same subject. There can be no true penance without an underlying spirit of penance, so if we just go through the motions but do not have a conversion of heart, the penance has very little value, if any at all. As we read on Ash Wednesday from the Prophet Joel: “Thus saith the Lord: be converted to me with all of your heart, in fasting and in weeping and in mourning. And rend your hearts and not your garments, and turn to the Lord your God: for He is gracious and merciful, patient and rich in mercy.”
During the past few days, the Masses for the ferial liturgy talked about just the subject of Our Lord noting how some in His day such as the Scribes and Pharisees disfigured their faces and made themselves look disheveled, they rent their garments as external marks of penance, but their hearts were not in accord with that and so our Lord said: Don’t let other people see or know the fact that you are fasting or doing penance but rather try to bury yourself in a humble way, to be careful not to let the penance, which you are doing show externally, so that instead of having a reward from God, you are seeking a reward or praise from others. This is the internal penance, the internal sacrifice, which is the most necessary accompanied by the external practices of the Holy season of Lent and if we make a good use of this season then when it comes to Easter, having participated with Our Lord in His Passion and in His crucifixion in our own limited degree, then we will share also in the joys of the resurrection and in the special graces of the spiritual rebirth, which that feast is intended to provide for us.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Editor's Note: The above sermon, edited for these pages, was transcribed by Michael Grant and given at the Sunday Masses for both Our Lady of Fatima in San Diego and Our Lady of Lourdes in Fontana on February 10, 2008.