The Meaning of the Fast

Source: District of Asia

On Nov. 2, 1950, in an address to the Cardinals and Bishops present in Rome for the solemn proclamation of the Assumption, Pope Pius XII deplored the present-day excess, found even among Christians, of luxury, pleasure-seeking and self-indulgence, and the lack of the spirit of sacrifice and mortification (AAS 1950, 786-8).  The Church, he said, wants her children to be joyful, yet there is a limit…

“In order to react against this lack of restraint, We exhort and urge all and every one to freely take up the spiritual warfare under the banner of Christian mortification and of the generous desire to go beyond what is strictly prescribed by the moral law—each one according to his strength, according to the invitations of God’s grace, according to what his work allows him to do”.

He explained the fruits of such self-denial:

“First, each one will, by doing penance, make up for his sins, purify his heart from the stains of vices, and will become holier and stronger.  He will also be an example and stimulant to his brethren in the faith and those outside; quae subtraxerit vanitati, impendet caritati, by reducing his luxuries and pleasures, he will be able to practise charity and relieve the needs of the Church and of the poor.  The early Christians acted in this manner; by fasting and abstaining even from acted in this manner; by fasting and abstaining ever from permissible things, they fed the fountains of beneficent charity.   To imitate their example is praiseworthy and appropriate to present-day conditions throughout the world”.

In this passage the Pope alluded to the ancient meaning of the fast, nowadays almost completely forgotten.

The Fathers (of the church) in their sermons never separated the fast from the practice of charity and almsgiving.  They did no doubt, as we do, see in the fast a precious means for purifying the soul, acquiring the mastery over our passions, and rendering our prayers more powerful; but it must be a Christian fast, which means that it must be accompanied by practical charity towards our brethren.  Fasting as such is something negative; it may be an individualistic asceticism inspired by a Manichean or Stoic philosophy; but it has no religious meaning or value; it becomes Christian only if it is inspired by charity—love for God which expresses itself in love for the neighbour.  A fast inspired by the love of God becomes a means to help my brethren: fasting must turn into almsgiving.  Charity is more important than fasting; he who cannot fast should make up by more abundant almsgiving and he who is too poor to give alms, can and must practice charity in many other ways: forgiving offences and doing other works of mercy.

The bulk of St. Leo’s sermon has this teaching on fasting and charity.  We can only quote here a few texts:

“Let us put aside a little of our food in order that our alms may increase by what is withdrawn from our table.  Only then does the remedy of the fast ensure the healing of the soul, when the abstinence of those who fast relieves the hunger of the poor” (Sermo 70, PL 54, 420).

“Let the abstinence of the faithful become the food of the poor” (sermo 20, ib. 190)

“Fast without alms afflict the body but do not purify the soul” (sermo 15, ibid. 175).

Before St. Leo, St Augustine was no less explicit on this point; one has but to read his seven Lenten sermons (ss. 205-211, PL 38, 1039-1058).  “Fasting without works of mercy”, he tell his congregation, “does not profit him who fasts” (s. 207. 1).  The fast and abstinence are meant to be a wholesome mortification, which at the same time enables us to feed the poor.

As usual, he is very practical.  He speaks against those who, “under the pretence of abstinence, vary the pleasures of the table rather than reduce them; because they abstain from meat, they buy delicate and costly dishes; by thus seeking a pleasant compensation, the observance of Lent, instead of repressing the old concupiscence, becomes an occasion for the new pleasure… How can we tell such people to give to the poor what they save by fasting, if they give up their usual food only to buy more costly dishes?” (s. 205, 2; 207, 2; 209, 3).

“Remember to whom you owe that of which you deprive yourselves: quod detrahit temperantia voluptati, addat misericordia caritati”.

This was the traditional practice, not only in the West by also in the Greek Church (47, n. 99).  It continued long after St. Leo.  Cesariaus of Arles says in the Lenten sermon:

“Fasting is good, almsgiving is better… If one cannot fast, almsgiving is sufficient… But fasting without almsgiving is no good, unless one be too poor to give; in which case the good will suffices” (PL 39, 2033).

And St. Gregory the Great writes in his Regula pastoralis:

“Fasting is recommended only because of the other virtues which accompany it; hence Joel says: ‘sanctify your fast’… Those who fast, therefore, should be warned that their abstinence will be pleasing to God, only if they give to the poor the food of which they deprive themselves” (PL 77, 82f).

SSPX India