This is part of a 3 part series on the 3 Pillars of Lent. Read the parts on Prayer and Almsigiving for more ideas on how to make your faith Full Contact this Lent!
While it may seem sometimes that being a Catholic Christian is a passive, primarily mental activity, the reality is that being a follower of Christ is a full-time, full-contact sport.
As Father Sergius Halvorsen points out, St. Paul often uses sports imagery when speaking about what it means to be a true disciple of Christ.
He says that he does not run aimlessly, nor does he "box as one beating the air." Rather, he "pommels" his body and subdues it. (1 Cor 9:24-7)...[he] encourages us to "run with perseverance the race that is set before us" (Heb 12:1) because our goal is a heavenly prize.
St. Paul points out that athletes exercise self-control in all things in order to be victorious (1Cor 9:25). If athletic discipline was obvious in St. Paul’s day, then it should be even more obvious in our culture with its preoccupation with professional sports. The athlete cannot pigeonhole his or her athletic life. One cannot eat junk food and sit on the couch throughout the off-season and expect to make the team. Similarly, Christ challenges us to follow Him three hundred sixty five days a year, which means that we lead a life of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Weight Training: Fasting
In the last thirty years or so, strength conditioning has been embraced as an essential part of all athletic training. From dancers to linebackers, all athletes require muscular strength and conditioning in order to perform well. Fasting is very much like weight training, however, instead of strengthening our physical muscles it strengthens our will.
Fr. Halvorsen elaborates:
We all need to eat in order to survive, so the desire to eat—to fill our stomachs when we are hungry—is a powerful and fundamental instinct. Because the desire to eat and be satisfied is such a powerful desire, voluntarily abstaining from food is profound expression of free will. Feeling hungry, or feeling that twinge of desire for double chocolate malted crunch ice cream, but then choosing to use our God-given free will to say, “not now” is incredibly powerful.
The Church calls us to a few specific forms of fasting for Lent. In general, the Church says that Ctholics between the ages of 18 and 59 are obliged to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. In addition, all Catholics 14 years old and older must abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and all the Fridays of Lent (read more about the Lenten guidelines).
Why? These guidelines? Do they really matter?
In the large scope of life, whether or not you eat a bacon double cheeseburger during Lent is relatively meaningless. However, as you choose to avoid the food you love during Lent, or on any Wednesday or Friday, you exercise and strengthen your will to say “not now.” While the burger means virtually nothing, the knowledge and confidence that you can say “not now” is invaluable when we are faced with much larger decisions that have immense ramifications for our lives. Fasting, saying “not now” is not a rejection of food, or our bodies, or the material life. Rather it is a conscious decision to exercise our willpower for the sake of Christ and the Gospel.
Some Catholic embrace the call to fast during Lent by giving something up (chocolate, alcohol, and sweets are popular choices). Choosing to give up something for Lent trains us to have self-control. Self-control aids us in our prayer and prayer brings us closer to God.
Make a commitment to follow the Church's fasting guidelines this Lent, and consider giving up something else that will help to you strenghten the muscles of your will and self-control.
Prayer, fasting and almsgiving more than just "Lenten disciplines." They are essential to our basic health and well being: they are fundamental to the Christian life.
Adapted and with quotes from "Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving: They're Not Just For Lent Anymore" by F.r Sergius Halvorsen.