In the Catholic tradition, a fast day is a day when you eat only one meal. This idea is not as strange as it seems: I remember reading once that a lot of Native Americans would only eat one meal a day. Originally, the practice of fasting was to delay this meal until after sunset. This is still the Muslim practice during ramadan. Catholics gradually moved the meal earlier in the day, so normally it would be eaten at noon.
There are only two obligatory fast days in the modern Church calendar, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. No one is required to fast until they are 18 years old, and no one over 59 is obligated to fast either. Many adults can do just fine limiting themselves to liquid: a cup of tea or a glass of milk; for others it will be hard to make it through the day without a piece of bread or a banana.
A husband and wife could fast together by agreeing to a day of no snacking, toast for breakfast, and apple for lunch, and the meal together after work would be their only real meal of the day.
Here are five reasons why fasting is an important spiritual practice:
Fasting is an act of repentance
– Many of our sins are rooted in a desire for comfort and an attachment to the needs of the body, so much that we that we think about our body first and then about the people around us and finally about God. Fasting, by refusing to feed ourselves, we repent for having put things in the wrong order.
Fasting is an act of penance
– Because the body is so strong and so insistent, we naturally serve our body much more than we serve God or others. By denying our body food, we do penance for our slavery and we show the body that it is not our master or lord. Unless we are willing to do this penance, we never become perfectly free children of God.
Fasting is an act of worship
– In the Catholic tradition, the highest form of worship is sacrifice. God does not want holocausts of bulls or goats: He wants us to offer up our own life to Him. Breakfast and lunch seems like a very small thing to offer to God, but even the smallest things are great offerings if they are given with love and gratitude.
Fasting is an act of justice
– We tend to put our own needs first and wait to help our neighbor until our belly is full. The problem is that once we are satisifed, we forget about our neighbor. Much of the world’s resources are being used up by a small portion of the planet, and the more food we eat, the more prices rise for the others. Fasting, by taking less for ourselves, we leave more room for others and we acknowledge that they also have a place at the table.
Fasting is an act of faith
– Fasting from food now, in this life, is a proclamation that the banquet of Heaven is waiting for us. We do not fill up on the food this world has to offer because we want to “save room” for the better things are coming. Fasting is faith in the resurrection.