Before talking about fasting, it is important to underline what the human being is made of. The human being is body, soul and spirit. It is significant to note that the grammatical expression “is…” is preferred rather than “made of” in order to show the unity of body-soul-spirit. This becomes more apparent if we examine what is inherent in these three areas: The body, which houses first of all its organs, has its five senses, and the brain. The soul has various faculties. The main rational ones are mind, will and memory. Other faculties are: the emotions, imagination, passions, inner senses…. The spirit is the upper part of the soul, the part that enters directly into contact with God. The spirit is the very image and resemblance of God in the human being.
Fasting should normally deal with all the human being and not only the body. Also, fasting has existed before the coming of Jesus, and is found in the Old Testament, in other religions before Christ (Hinduism, Buddhism…) and in religions after Christ (Islam…). While fasting is universal, however, Christ gave Fasting a new frame, a new meaning, and new means.
Jesus showed us the Way, He himself fasting for forty days. He is our Way and opens up this Way for us. Therefore, Fasting has a very specific Christian aspect to it. While Fasting, Jesus was tempted in three different ways. This moment in the life of Jesus is a special light on our way, to show us that we should gain control over ourselves, over our body, our senses, our desire for food.
No longer is fasting just to show repentance, or to do penance or some ascetical exercise. It is not even only a cleansing exercise – as many claim today. Far from it, as now fasting is part of the global effort that the human being has to make in order to reach the fullness of his vocation as a Christian, namely, Union with Jesus and the Perfection of Love/charity.
Christ never separated fasting from praying. Thus, in the case of food if fasting is closer to emptying our body, our tendencies to love food to excess (gluttony), praying by contrast will be filling the emptiness that the exercise/sacrifice of fasting has created. This is why they should not be separated. Thus, we empty ourselves of our desire to eat something that pleases us, or in the quantity that pleases us, while in the meantime we are invited to fill that empty gap with prayer, with the consolation of the meditation of the Word of God.
We are also invited to widen our understanding of fasting. While it entails depriving ourselves of something we like, it is accompanied by a renewed inner knowledge of ourselves. Fasting by “not eating” or “eating less”, has its own value as regards health. But, without neglecting fasting from food, fasting can go deeper. Hence one can fast with the eyes by not spending time watching TV and/or using the internet…. Fasting can be undertaken with the tongue: not saying bad words, not gossiping about somebody, not wasting time in useless chatter. Fasting can go even deeper, that is, by controlling our own thoughts, and stopping ourselves from thinking negatively about people, by refraining from judging any person. …
We fast, says Jesus, because the Groom, Jesus Himself, is no longer with us. We fast in order to offer as a small sacrifice, something we like, in return for our spiritual search for Jesus himself. As we can see, if we deepen our understanding of fasting, Christian Fasting, we are in for a spiritual journey that has as its goal: to reach the Groom, Jesus Himself.
In sum, we cannot transform fasting into a simple bodily exercise consisting in depriving ourselves of something, without looking at the framework Jesus gave it, and the means He offered us.
The main means Jesus offered for fasting is the Power of His Own Grace: the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit there can be no spiritual life, there can be no connection with Jesus – we cannot even fast, we cannot even listen to His Word. It is the Holy Spirit who fills us with His strength, it is He who motivates us to search for Jesus and Pray, and it is He who fills us with the Presence of Jesus. Now, therefore, fasting becomes a deep meeting with Jesus, and a spiritually enjoyable time. In fact, the period of Lent is a time where the Grace of God is doubled, in order to boost our journey to reach Union with Jesus. Then too, we cannot even transform fasting into a simple sacrifice, a bodily exercise that we offer to God. Christian Fasting is infinitely more than that. It encompasses body, soul and spirit. It encompasses Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and a deep Spiritual Life.
Sins come from the soul and not from the body. Jesus says: it is from the heart of the human being that come all bad things (bad thoughts, bad acts, hatred …). Jesus, on the one hand, has said that food merely enters our body and then exits it. It does not have any moral dimension as such. “heart” in a biblical meaning, by contrast, means the centre of the human being – of his every thought and feeling.
Jesus has freed us from Moses’ Law food prohibitions, however, and said that all foods are good and that there are no forbidden foods. (We can consider that the forbidden foods in Moses’ Law were an education and an ascetical training for temperance.) Admittedly food is good, but the use we make of food is not always good. It is in order to get control over our body, our gluttony, that we use “Christian fasting” (see temperance). It is in order to learn spiritual warfare that we fast and pray. It is in order to reach Union with Jesus that fasting (in its deepest meaning) is a Christian practice.
In the journey towards Union, then, we need to be purified. The first stage of this purification is the purification related to our body and to our senses. Our attachment to food and to worldly goods are the first objects of fasting. We offer this or that “attachment” to Jesus, for the sake of His Love, and therefore we fill the gap or emptiness created by this absence by meditating on the Word of God, contemplating Jesus’ Passion, and helping the needy because Jesus is embodied in the needy. Remember, also, that the money saved by eating less, or less expensive foods or meals, can be put aside and given to the poor. Fasting humbles us and makes us closer to the poor. Jesus is in them, and it is to our peril that we forget them.
Last but not least, we are far off course if we attempt to show anybody that we are fasting. This is why Jesus said: when you fast, do not show it to others, it is a matter between you and God – but in your fervour ensure some practices you wish to undertake are done with the advice of your spiritual director. Similarly, we must not entertain the very pointless and materialistic view that says: this croissant is made of butter or of oil (some Eastern Churches forbid dairy food for certain types of fasting) and so avoid that food. This would be emptying fasting from its deep Christian meaning, framework, and prayerful means accompanying it.