Thomas Reese: Fasting From Food & Feeding on the Bible During Lent

“What are you giving up for Lent?” is a question Catholics direct at each other this time of year. “Giving up” usually applies to food, in keeping with the church’s ancient practice of fasting. We moderns have found the idea of fasting can also apply to habits like television or social media.

Fasting is seen as a way of doing penance for sin as well as being united with Jesus, who spent 40 days fasting in the desert. The practice of fasting during the 40 days of Lent used to be mandatory for Catholics, with no eating between meals. Also, breakfast and lunch combined were not supposed to be more than your main meal.

While fasting is not obligatory anymore, it is encouraged. We should, of course, put a priority on giving up those things we should not be doing anyway: smoking, drugs, pornography, junk food, too much alcohol, etc.

Doing something, rather than giving up something, is also an option — regular exercise for many people, including me, is a penance.

When the Rev. James Martin’s non-Catholic college roommates found out he was planning to give up something for Lent, they responded that he shouldn’t be the one to decide; he could cheat and pick something he didn’t care about anyway. So began a tradition of his roommates telling Father Martin what he had to give up each Lent.

The medieval rules for fasting had the effect of forcing the upper classes to eat like poor people, who, by comparison, were always fasting. So, if you really want to get into the spirit of Lent, try surviving on what can be bought with a month’s worth of food stamps — which aren’t valid for alcohol or hot prepared foods. Give what you save to the poor.

Another way to update Lent to the needs of the 21st century would be a carbon fast. If we all cut our carbon consumption during Lent that would not only be a good penance, it would help the planet. Likewise, many churches are encouraging members to give up plastic for Lent.

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Source: Religion News Service