Lenten Pastoral Letter 2009

The meaning of fasting

The time of Lent is also called the time of Fasting. It is a time to prepare for the celebration of the Pascal Mystery, the summit of the liturgical year. It is to commemorate the forty days of retreat and fasting of our Saviour before his public ministry.

To fast is to set a period of “not eating” or “not eating certain kinds of food” or “to eat with moderation”.

Believers of many religions practice fasting. They all understand that mortification of the desire of the body can increase our spiritual strength.

The code of canon law for the universal Church designates Fridays and Lent as a period for fasting. But it also allows the Pastors of the local Churches to make concrete directives for the details of observation. The Hong Kong Catholic Church Directory states on page 528 the regulation laid down by the late Cardinal John B. Wu, “The faithful may be dispensed from abstinence on Fridays, on condition that on these days they perform special acts of charity or piety, such as making personal sacrifices in the matter of food, alcoholic drink, smoking , or spending less time on amusements (eg. watching T.V., playing majong, etc.), or making a sacrifice of their free time in serving the poor, the sick, the elderly, the lonely and the needy. In addition to this, during Lent, they are exhorted to make a special effort in the practice of works of piety, such as daily Mass, daily visits to the Blessed Sacrament or the Stations of the Cross. As regards Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the traditional fast and abstinence are to be kept”. So it is clear that it is a misunderstanding to say our Diocese has dispensed the obligation of fasting.

The Holy Father reminds us the meaning of fasting. Of course many people of our time also practice fasting. They do this for their health, to reduce weight, and to avoid over-eating or unbalance in their diet. The Pope reminds us the religious meaning of fasting: To mortify our desire of eating in order to increase our spiritual strength. The spiritual strength helps us to return to God.

Human being is a unity of body and soul. We should not oppose the body and the soul. But it is undeniable that if we do not control the desire of the body, if we do not give up certain enjoyment we would sacrifice the spiritual value. The Pope said, “Fasting can help us to avoid sin.” “Sin and its consequence will weaken the spirit. Fasting can help us to be reconciled with God.”

Fasting helps us to listen more clearly to the Word of God and not to lead a selfish life, so as to live for God who has given his life for us. Jesus fasted for forty days. The devil tempted him and asked him to change the stone into bread. Jesus answered, “Man do not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Already in paradise God had ordered our first parents to fast by forbidding them to eat the fruit of the tree of “knowledge of good and evil”. “Knowledge of good and evil” is to decide for oneself what is good and evil. Fasting is to obey, to take the will of God as the measure of good and evil.

God is love. Love is the only true value. Only to act for love is meaningful.

Jesus said, “whenever you fast do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Mt 6:16-18) To fast in order to get others to see and to get praise, it vanity, and not out of love. Fasting has meaning only if it is out of the love for God.

What good do our fasting and mortification do to God? None of our action can bring any good to God. He is infinitely perfect. He does not need anything from us. He only wants our love. He wants to be our God. He wants us to be his people. Fasting repairs our lack of love in the past, expresses our regret. Fasting strengthens our will and prepares us to sacrifices for love.

Whatever we do for love is not measured by the greatness of smallness of the act itself. The two tiny coins of the widow have infinite value because of love. St. Paul said, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing, If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over body to be burned, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor 13:1-3)

What has my fasting got to do with others? In itself it has nothing. But if I am not used to mortify myself I am not ready to do any sacrifice for others. Our heart is limited. If it is filled with selfishness there is no place for love. Mortification opens our heart. We can embrace all those who need our love. Between “treating oneself with strictness” and “treating others with magnanimity” there is a certain proportionality. The more we can give up some material enjoyment the more we are ready to care for others. To experience the hardship of fasting enables us to feel greater sympathy for those who live in hunger.

Fasting can help us to love God and to love our neighbours. How can we say that fasting in out of date?

Cardinal Zen

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