What Are You Fasting From?

Fasting is one of the traditional practices of Lent. Although the only days on which Catholics are obligated to fast are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the practice is encouraged throughout Lent.

For many of us who grew up Catholic, our childhood fasting during Lent took the form of giving up some favorite food item. (“What are you giving up?” was one of the most frequently asked questions of the season.) Giving up chocolate was common. Or soft drinks. The really daring might vow to forego all desserts. The habits of childhood often last well into adulthood; my sister still gives up chocolate every year for Lent and one of my friends gives up beer each Lent.

I don’t mean to minimize such practices. There is value to the discipline of fasting, especially if we do more than the Catholic minimum required definition of fasting, which always sounds to me more like cutting down than fasting. (One full meal and two small meals that together are less than one full meal, and even that is only required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.) And feeling hunger when we fast reminds us of the condition many people live with daily, and not as a matter of choice.

But today’s first mass reading from the Book of Isaiah tells us that that is not necessarily the fasting God seeks of us:

Do you call this a fast acceptable to the Lord? This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.

By all means, fast during this Lent. Give up a favorite food item, or alcohol or the like if that is a helpful spiritual practice. But think carefully about whether there is something more meaningful than food you can fast from. What kind of fasting does greatest honor to God?