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The True Sense of Fasting

Why do your disciples not fast?

"Now John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, 'Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?' And Jesus said to them, 'Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.'"

Thus, Jesus does not deny the practice of fasting, but renews it in its forms, times and contents. Fasting has become an ambiguous

practice. In antiquity, only religious fasting was known; today, political and social fasting exists (hunger strikes!), health and ideological fasting (vegetarians), pathological fasting (anorexia), aesthetic fasting (to be thin).There is, above all, a fast imposed by necessity: that of millions of human beings who lack the indispensable minimum and die of hunger.In themselves, these fasts have nothing to do with religious or aesthetic reasons. In aesthetic fasting at times (not always) one even "mortifies" the vice of gluttony only to obey another capital vice, that of pride or vanity.


It is important, therefore, to discover the genuine biblical teaching on fasting. In regard to fasting, we find in the Bible the attitude of "yes, but," of approval and of critical reservation.Fasting, in itself, is something good and recommendable; it translates some fundamental religious attitudes: reverence before God, acknowledgment of one's sins, resistance to the desires of the flesh, concern for and solidarity with the poor. … As with all human things, however, it can fall into "presumption of the flesh." Suffice it to think of the words of the Pharisee in the temple: "I fast twice a week" (Luke 18:12).If Jesus was to speak to us his disciples of today, what would he stress most, the "yes" or the "but"?


At present we are very sensitive to the reasons of the "but" and of critical reservation. We regard as more important the need to "share bread with the hungry and clothe the naked"; we are in fact ashamed to call ours a "fast," when what would be for us the height of austerity -- to be on bread and water -- for millions of people would already be an extraordinary luxury, especially if it is fresh bread and clean water.What we should discover instead are the reasons for the "yes." The Gospel's question might be stated in our days in another way: "Why do the disciples of Buddha and Mohammed fast and your disciples do not fast?" (It is well known with what seriousness Muslims observe Ramadan.)We live in a culture dominated by materialism and unbridled consumerism.


Fasting helps us not to be reduced to pure "consumers"; it helps us to acquire the precious "fruit of the Spirit," which is "self-control," it predisposes us to the encounter with God who is spirit, and it makes us more attentive to the needs of the poor.But we must not forget that there are alternative forms of fasting and abstinence from food. We can practice fasting from tobacco, alcohol and drinks of high alcoholic content (which not only benefits the soul but also the body), fasting from violent and sexual pictures that television, shows, magazines and Internet bombard us with daily.Likewise, this kind of modern "demons" are not defeated except "with fasting and prayer."Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap.[Translation by



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