How to Approach Fasting and Penance

Now that we are out of the Easter Season, we can start looking again at prayer, fasting, and alms giving. Contrary to what many may think, fasting isn’t just a Lenten thing. Fasting is something that we should be doing on a weekly basis, with some exceptions of course. Friday of course is a day of abstinence no matter where in the year it falls – unless there is a major feast that mitigates it. But why should we fast outside of Lent? Some may point to the Code of Canon Law which designates Lent and all Fridays as penitential. This is why some people will give up something instead of meat to fulfill that penitential obligation. I disagree with this practice. Not because it goes against tradition or it allows weaker penances, but because I don’t really agree behind the mentality of penance to begin with.

Penance has been construed to be something we do to essentially “work-off” a debt. People point to the temporal punishment due to sin and that by fasting and abstaining we face it now rather than in purgatory. I have to wholeheartedly disagree. In the past, the Roman Catholic Church has taught that in purgatory you serve a certain number of years, and indulgences and penances would reduce your sentence by a certain number of years i.e. partial indulgence of 7 years. (I designate Roman because it was never the teaching of the Eastern Catholic Churches, and was never a defined dogma, thus was never really the official teaching of the Catholic Church albeit it was popular). The Catholic Church then began to teach that Purgatory isn’t a celestial jail but a place of purification and cannot be thought of in temporal terms. Thus, people later corrected themselves by saying things such as “Oh, this particular partial indulgence means that you get the same temporal relief as you would if you did 7 years of hard penance!”

But again, I have to disagree with even that! My issue is that we are putting a numerical measurement on God’s unlimited and infinite grace, which is not something that is tangible! Imagine creating units for love. “I have given my wife 3 loves today and God 5 loves.” That sounds absolutely absurd! Why, then, would we refer to God’s grace as some spiritual currency? The Eastern Churches teach this: the blood of Christ has wiped away all of our debts past and present, provided we repent. That being said, we still walk on the way to perfection. Just because we are forgiven does not make us saints, and it takes time for us to grow in faith. Because of this, moved out of sorrow for our sins and a desire for reparation, we do penances to change who we are into something better.

The question you may ask is how is that any different than the temporal punishment that the Roman Catholic Church teaches. My answer is that it isn’t. However, it is a different way of looking at it. The action and the result are the same. The action is penance and the result is a saint or holier person. But the intent is completely different. The Western intent is to serve off punishment for crimes committed against God. The Eastern intent is to rehabilitate the sinner from their attachment towards crimes committed against God.

This leads us back into fasting. If fasting isn’t something to punish us for our sins, then what is it? It is true that fasting and repentance are intimately connected. In order to get a good understanding of this, we need to look at Jesus, who fasted. Jesus wasn’t fasting to serve off temporal sin. Jesus fasted to prepare for his ministry AND to give us an example for our own lives. If you recall, Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness. And what occurred right afterwards? Satan tempts Him. “Turn this rock into bread.” Jesus replies with “Man does not live on bread alone but on everything that proceeds out of God’s mouth.” Man does not live on bread alone. We have been convinced that all we need are the material pleasures of this world. We don’t need God. We have our food, our homes, our clothes, etc. And when Jesus was at His weakest, He refused food since it wasn’t the appointed time, since He had God.

One verse in the Bible says: “If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.” A hardened heart means you turned away to God. By fasting, you weaken yourself so that when you turn to depend on God rather than on materials, you soften your heart. And by doing that, you are more receptive to the feast you are fasting in preparation of. Fasting makes us turn to God and is a medicine, not a punishment. So if we start looking at penance in medicinal terms rather than punishment terms, our hearts will open, our prayer will be energized, and we will become holier as a result.

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