I have to begin here with full disclosure: I'm a wimpy faster. There's no two ways around it, I'm not that great at it. Fasting is not fun. When talk comes up of giving anything up that tastes good or that satisfies hunger, mixed feelings well up and I have an overwhelming temptation to turn the other way and high-tail it out. Even the two days of the year that adults in the Church are required to fast, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, seemed for the longest time like an unnecessary burden; today, though I now understand the purpose behind it, that feeling (temptation) often wins out and, at some point or another I lose resolve. But, even despite many times failing to follow through, the difficulty of fasting has made its power even more evident. I suppose that is what the Lord meant when he replied to St. Paul's appeal for relief of the thorn in his side, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9) So, I write this as much for myself as for anyone else.
As a young adult growing up in the Church--when fasting became a requirement--I almost could not believe that we should be required to impose some suffering on ourselves, especially when we had food is readily available. I distinctly remember thinking to myself, "What kind of sense does that make?"
Well, as I've come to discover fifteen years later, it doesn't make any sense--to the world that is. But, then again there are a lot of things that we do as Christians that seem like nonsense to a society that in so many ways is opposed to the Gospel. Christ himself promised that not only would the world not understand us, it would despise and hate us (cf. John 15:18), among other things simply for being counter-cultural and denouncing every idol that society promises will satisfy us. That includes the idea that is thrust in our faces at practically every turn, that having all of our temporal needs met, including the most basic need of food, will ultimately satisfy us.
Joining Christ in the Desert
Back to the physical reality of fasting, again, it is just plain, flat out, not fun. Not only that, but it is difficult. Where I come from, that would seem like a textbook lose-lose situation. By the end of a day of fasting, especially more rigorous fasting, as physical fatigue and hunger headaches start to cloud thoughts, the temptation to give in and give up only gets stronger and stronger. It is hard enough (and I've failed enough) just trying to make it through one day; it is almost unimaginable to have endured for 40. But, in following Jesus' example and allowing the suffering of hunger pangs to take us into an interior desert, we are brought to the reality that it is Christ himself, the new bread of life, that we are now to depend on.
Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, conveyed this idea well in his book, Jesus of Nazareth, contrasting the Christ's temptation in the desert with his later multiplication of the loaves and fishes: "He himself has become bread for us, and this multiplication of the loaves endures to the end of time." Continuing, quoting the German Jesuit Alfred Delp, who was executed by the Nazis, "'Bread is important, freedom is more important, but most important of all is unbroken fidelity and faithful adoration'" (p. 33). Through fasting, we are prepared for the greater difficulties and temptations that fidelity and faithful adoration to Christ will inevitably bring.
The Holy Father continues,
"We live in this world, where God is not so manifest as tangible things are, but can be sought and found only when the heart sets out on the 'exodus' from 'Egypt.' It is in this world that we are obliged to resist the delusions of false philosophies and to recognize that we do not live by bread alone, by first and foremost by obedience to God's word. Only when this obedience is put into practice does the attitude develop that is also capable of providing bread for all" (p.34)
Fasting pulls us away from that 'satisfaction delusion' offered by this world and back into the eternal reality, to join Christ in the desert and, with him and in him, to submit our will to be steeled against the lies of the tempter. It allows us to rediscover the truth that the only thing that can satisfy us is the Word of God, whom we have the privilege of knowing as the person of Christ and experiencing in the flesh every time we celebrate the Eucharist.
To the Foot of the Cross
By fasting, we voluntarily impose suffering on ourselves and, in doing so, we allow our focus to be pulled away from our 'this world, here-and-now' comfort zone, straight back to the foot of the cross. It hastens our death to self, so that being emptied as he was, we can better dispose our will to his and, with greater focus and purpose, carry out the mission that has been given to us of spreading the Gospel. It gives us a stark reminder, through a real and tangible pain in our stomach, that to join in the joy of his work and ultimately the glory of his Resurrection, we must first endure the suffering, and pain of our crosses in life, and ultimately the death that he has transformed into a door to eternal life.
In Mark 9, after Jesus drove an evil spirit out of a boy, his disciples asked him, "'Why could we not cast it out? He said, 'This kind can only come out through prayer'" (other ancient translations add and fasting; Mark 9:28-29, NRSV). It would seem that Jesus is trying to make a point here, first about the necessity of prayer, and second that there are certain, powerful actions that ordinary, 'run-of-the-mill' day-to-day faithful living cannot by itself bring about. In order to reach this more powerful, higher level of faith in action, we must first enter more deeply into the mystery of prayer, by denying the needs of our physical body (albeit temporarily). Even better, we should strive more frequently to enter into this self-denying faith. For most of us, who otherwise have our bodily needs met, this is accomplished by fasting. In doing so our spiritual needs, both our individual needs and those of the of the faith community as a whole, are brought into clearer focus as we bring them closer to Christ by drawing nearer to his cross.
On second thought, those two days probably aren't enough.