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Fasting Can Be a Feast for the Spirit

Open Wide: Fasting Can Be a Feast for the Spirit

“Why do we have to fast?” Maybe it’s one of your children who asks. Or maybe it’s a cry from deep within yourself, as you’re fighting the urge for a snack.

You’ll be better prepared for situations like this if you can appreciate Lent as a time to both “fast and feast.” Granted, this isn’t the season’s usual watchword.

Lent has its food events: Think hot cross buns, pretzels, and fish fries (the Seder meal, too: see page A15). Still, it is the liturgical season for penance and self-denial. The question is, though, do we see these disciplines as burdens or as opportunities for growth?

Lent has been described as “a spiritual feast that does for the soul what food does for the body.” It can sound rather ethereal, yet this “fasting is feasting” idea isn’t just a play on words or an attempt to put a positive spin on a negative. It highlights an important truth: Acts of self-denial, done freely out of love for God, are more about blessing than privation. If we could see how the Lord turns them to our benefit, we just might take them on cheerfully, without gloom or griping!

“Open wide your mouth that I may fill it,” God told the people of Israel (Psalm 81:11). He says the same to us. As we seek the Lord through fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, he will nourish us. Here, then, are a few simple ideas for helping your family appreciate the spiritual feast.

Present the church precept on Lenten fasting and abstinence. At a minimum, healthy Catholics fourteen and over are to abstain from meat on Fridays and Ash Wednesday. Eighteen- to sixty-year-olds may have one full meal on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, plus two small meals that together don’t equal a full meal.

Explain that all are called to cultivate a true sense of penance during Lent, as appropriate to their age and situation. Talk over the possibilities: attending Mass more often, Lenten devotions, and so on.

Communicate the right spirit: neither scrupulous and legalistic nor “just enough to get by.” Supersizing your full meal on a fast day isn’t the way to go. Neither is obsessing about whether swallowing toothpaste breaks the Communion fast.

Help your kids see that the fasting and abstinence rules have a purpose. They help us deny ourselves something good in order to focus on something better—to make room for God. The idea is to develop a generous love that is free to follow the Spirit’s lead.

Talk it up. Discuss the reasons for fasting, and its benefits. Stories from Scripture can help stimulate discussion: Why did Jesus fast (Matthew 4; Luke 4), and how can we imitate him? What happened when Moses prayed and fasted (Exodus 34:28)? What about Elijah, or Anna (1 Kings 19:8; Luke 2:36-38)?

You might compare fasting to an exclamation point on prayer: It emphasizes sorrow for sin, desire to offer our whole selves to God, and determination to follow Jesus. Fasting strengthens and equips us to fight temptation, but it also reveals our weaknesses and great need for God. All of this reminds us to pray! When we fast, we’re telling God, “I want to put you first and be close to you. I need your help. I’m willing to deny myself in order to find you and the grace you want to give me.”

Have a Lenten menu plan. Make sure you have enough ideas for meatless dishes and simple, nourishing menus. If you need fresh ideas, check out and Good cookbooks for the occasion include: Evelyn Vitz’s A Continual Feast (Harper & Row); the Mennonites’ Simply in Season (Herald Press); and Habeeb Salloum’s From the Lands of Figs and Olives (Interlink Publishing Group). Just don’t go too gourmet!

Link your Lenten fasting to almsgiving. Church Fathers like St. Gregory the Great insisted that any money saved through fasting belongs to the poor. Discuss, as a family, how you’ll keep track of the savings realized through your Lenten penances of simpler foods, fewer purchases, and so on. Then decide together where you’ll give the money.