Every Ash Wednesday, the Gospel reminds us of how we should act when we perform some of the most fundamental Christian works—namely, almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Jesus’ main lesson in this reading is to teach us to avoid hypocrisy by not even letting “your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Mt. 6:3). What I find most interesting about this Gospel, however, is not Jesus’ main message, but rather what He assumes of His audience. He says “when you pray,” “when you give alms,” and “when you fast.” It is clear that Jesus thinks the need for these practices is so obvious that He doesn’t even bother telling us we should do them!
Sadly, it seems that the Church today has lost a sense of absolute necessity in all three of these Christian works, which Jesus saw to be so fundamental. Out of the three, however, the most neglected, the most unmentioned, and the most misunderstood by far is fasting. Luckily, the Church has 2,000 years of tradition surrounding the topic, of which St. Thomas Aquinas is not the least part. In the Summa Theologica (II-II.157.1), he addresses this very issue, laying out three purposes of fasting that hold true today just as much as they did 700 years ago.
The first reason Thomas gives for fasting is to "bridle the lusts of the flesh.” Although this at first might sound confusing, or even radical, it is important to understand what Aquinas means by “the flesh.” Aquinas does not mean that the body is bad, or that somehow our bodies by their intended nature can bring us away from God; in fact, a central part of Thomistic (and true Christian) thought is the conviction that the body is good because it is created by God, and will even be raised during the Resurrection of the Body. Rather, Aquinas uses the word “flesh” to allude to one of the three traditional sources of sin: “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” The flesh refers to that which is in our fallen nature, where the passions that come from our body are no longer subservient to the commands of our will. It is because of these lusts of the flesh that St. Paul says, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15). By fasting we beat down this “old man” of fleshy desires in us—we starve him, and therefore re-assert the power of our own will in our lives in order to better serve Christ.
Secondly, Aquinas says that we fast “in order that the mind may arise more freely to the contemplation of heavenly things.” Although this might seem like an abstraction, it is actually more in the vein of practical wisdom than high theology. Most of us would like to think we are decently detached from worldly things, but it becomes painfully apparent we are not the second we try to give them up: sugar, electronics, reading, etc. When we fast from these things that are constantly vying for our attention, however, we achieve that detachment we thought we already had. Our mind naturally passes over these smaller goods that we often concern ourselves with—what we'll have for dinner, or what Netflix show we'll watch—and naturally gravitate towards the Supreme Good.
The last reason Aquinas gives for fasting is that it is a means of atoning for our sins and the sins of others. Although the eternal punishment for sin—namely eternal separation from our Greatest Love—is remitted when we go to Confession, the temporal punishment for sin—the “satisfaction” or making amends for our sin—is either remitted in this life by suffering, or in the next life in a more painful Purgatory. Furthermore, after making amends for our own sins, we can ask the Lord to take our own satisfactions and apply them to the Holy Souls in Purgatory. How amazing would it be to, with our fasts, free souls from Purgatory and have the favor of then receiving their prayers from Heaven!
During this Lent, let us keep in mind these great benefits of fasting as we strive to grow closer to Our Lord through prayer, almsgiving, and fasting.
Featured image courtesy of Lawrence OP via Flickr.