Fasting gives birth to prophets and strengthens the powerful; fasting makes lawgivers wise. Fasting is a good safeguard for the soul, a steadfast companion for the body, a weapon for the valiant, and a gymnasium for athletes. Fasting repels temptations, anoints unto piety; it is the comrade of watchfulness and the artificer of chastity. In war it fights bravely, in peace it teaches stillness. – St. Basil the Great
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By John Pearring
We still live in the age of fasting, as Jesus foretold.
The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. (Matt 9:15)
Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, leaving creation for Heaven, set the stage for his return, but until then, we exist in a modified version of our ancient Jewish forerunners. Modified in the sense that we have the gift of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling and eat Christ's body and blood at Mass.
Norms on fasting, our Christian heritage, and Catholic faith expression date to speaking these verses by Jesus. Fasting is not a punishment but a necessary obedience. We abstain to strengthen our relationship with God while we wait for him.
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We’re familiar with Canon Law on fasting, even if we don’t realize that’s how our faith is coded. Unless overridden by a local bishop, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of fasting and abstinence for Catholics. In addition, Fridays during Lent are obligatory days of abstinence. This requirement for Catholics isn’t a passing fancy. It’s a marker of faithfulness to God.
When questioned about fasting, Jesus didn’t call the exercise an antiquated Jewish practice. He said his presence with the disciples, like the bridegroom at a wedding feast, temporarily removes the point of fasting. Fasting is the act of mourning because our joy is gone. With Jesus in their midst, they knew the joy of God. They would mourn later.
We experience Jesus’ presence at the Mass. Before we attend and receive communion, however, again, Canon Law gives us a fasting requirement. Canon 919 of the Code of Canon Law summarizes the norm of not eating before receiving the Eucharist. “One who is to receive the Most Holy Eucharist is to abstain from any food or drink, with the exception of water and medicine, for at least the period of one hour before Holy Communion.”
Why fast? In an article penned in 2014, Sam Guzman outlines well the act of fasting as a spiritual weapon. He quotes St. Basil the Great:
Fasting gives birth to prophets and strengthens the powerful; fasting makes lawgivers wise. Fasting is a good safeguard for the soul, a steadfast companion for the body, a weapon for the valiant, and a gymnasium for athletes. Fasting repels temptations, anoints unto piety; it is the comrade of watchfulness and the artificer of chastity. In war it fights bravely, in peace it teaches stillness. – St. Basil the Great, from St. Basil’s First Homily.
St. Basil’s packed quote deserves further reading, almost like reciting a prayer mantra.
Fasting gives birth to prophets and strengthens the powerful; fasting makes lawgivers wise.
Wow. Self-help programs are built upon Basil’s genius. By slowing the digesting process and being fueled by our stored energies, our minds awaken to the divine. Our whole being is steeled by redirecting the intensity of hunger. Clarity, focus, and motivation go into overdrive.
Fasting is a good safeguard for the soul, a steadfast companion for the body, a weapon for the valiant, and a gymnasium for athletes.
Eating, like any compulsory need, triggers our desires. Contemplative men and women consider every hour between meals a fasting exercise. This simple discipline, holding off on food and drink, trains our body to wait for appropriate times. All preparation demands focus, and fasting is a fully forming activity to center our bodies and minds upon God.
Fasting repels temptations, anoints unto piety; it is the comrade of watchfulness and the artificer of chastity.
The stuff of fasting depends upon repelling temptation. “No,” we tell ourselves. We get used to being in charge of our desires. I often forget the notion of piety, a missing virtue in a click-bait distraction incessant world. Fasting as an anointing is powerful imagery. Watchfulness and chastity can only become normative by being overt. Fasting, once we push through the snacking drives, the aromas, and the eye candy, delivers us to a new pattern of watchfulness.
Basil’s finishing point cracks a ceiling that most of us struggle to break through. In war [fasting] fights bravely, in peace it teaches stillness.
Soldiering and waging a defense demand that we stand firm and put ourselves before the innocent. Fasting builds courage and stamina, the character and virtue necessary to be a soldier. War gives us no time to prepare, as we’ve seen happening everywhere. Fasting’s preparedness trains body and mind.
Stillness in peace. That is what holiness looks like.
The lessons and pillars of fasting woven into St. Basil’s words explain everything about our lives here in creation. As we wait for heaven and yearn for the always presence of Jesus among us, we have a spiritual weapon, a portal of sorts to focus upon God between Mass and our Holy Hours.
(There is a parenthesis on the Catholic laws about fasting, by the way. Obligatory fasting only applies to Catholics from age 18 until age 59, where those in that 40-year age group are permitted only to eat one full meal and two smaller meals that are not equal to a full meal. And those who are elderly—at least sixty years—or sick, as well as their caretakers, can receive Communion even if a full-hour fast has not been fulfilled.)
Catholic Straight Answers on Fasting
Spiritual Weapons Fasting
Canon Law on Fasting
St. Basil the Great’s First Homilyhttps://rutgersnb.occministries.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/St.-Basil-the-Great’s-First-Homily-on-Fasting.pdf