LENT: A TIME OF FASTING IN ORDER TO NOURISH US WITH THE WORD
“Man lives not on bread alone, but that all that proceeds from the mouth of God is life for man” (Deut 8:3). With these words, taken from Deuteronomy, Jesus rejects the proposal of the evil one who suggested that he commit all his energy and ability to producing bread. A person needs food, but at the point where he is satiated and his material needs met, he becomes aware that there are deeper worries within him.
Believing that it is possible to satisfy the need for the infinite and the eternal, falling back only on the goods and chattels of this world for fulfillment reveals a dramatic illusion. There is a realization that beauty fades, “for youth and dark hair will not last” (Ecl 11:10). Material goods promise a durable paradise on earth, but then a time comes when they are expropriated. We know that it will end this way, yet we naturally continue to entrust the realization of our lives to ephemeral realities.
When we become aware of the transience of this world and question ourselves on the meaning of our existence, on entering into dialogue with the Lord, it is then that we make the leap to becoming real persons. Rightly or not, Muslims, who do not raise their eyes towards heaven to establish an intimate relationship with God, miss out on becoming well rounded persons.
The search for food and shelter, the drive to give continuity to our species, the search for what gives pleasure, are “appetites” we have in common with animals. It is only when we experience the intimate need for another food that the specific aspect of being human manifests itself in us.
Conscious of this, the prophet Amos announced: “Days are coming when I will send famine upon the land, not hunger for bread or thirst for water, but for hearing the Word of the Lord” (Am 8:11).
Lent is a privileged time to return to ourselves, to nourish and to let the divine grow within us. It is a time to listen to God’s Word. It is not a superficial, distracted listening, almost fearful that the message will penetrate too deeply into the mind and heart, causing a disturbance, but a deeper listening that requires radical changes of direction in our lives.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Your word, O Lord, is food for the life you've given me.”
First Reading: Joel 2:12-18
One of the calamities ancient people dreaded most was an invasion of locusts. Driven by the scorching desert wind, they came in swarms and wherever they rested, they wiped out every form of vegetation.
At the beginning of his book, the prophet Joel dramatically describes the consequences of the scourge that struck his homeland: “It has destroyed my vines and ruined my fig trees. It has stripped off their bark and left white their branches. The fields are in ruin…. Grieve, O you farmers … for the harvest of the field has perished” (Jl 1:7-11).
The biblical passage that leads us into the Lenten season is placed in this context. The Israelites ask: Why were we afflicted by such misfortune? Is it a punishment, a retaliation from God, his resentment for us because we have forgotten him?
Misfortunes such as the calamity of locusts are painful events. They occur, but are never sent by the Lord. They cause confusion and distress. However, if these sad moments are lived in the light of the Word of God, they can become moments of grace. The prophet helps his people to interpret the calamity that hit them as a call to conversion. He says: the land has been invaded by locusts because you have been bent on the goods of this world. Welfare, prosperity, abundance, and wealth have become a trap fatal to your faith.
Before introducing the people into the Promised Land, Moses had warned them against this dangerous temptation: “And when you have eaten and have been satisfied, when you have built your comfortable homes and live in them, when your livestock have multiplied, when you have silver and gold in abundance and an increase of good things of every kind, then do not let your heart become proud and do not forget the Lord, your God” (Deut 8:1-14).
Joel invites the Israelites to acknowledge that they lost their heads in the pursuit of material goods. They had reached the point of not thinking of anything other than feeling good, to become rich, to search for luxury, and to indulge in revelry. The calamity of locusts showed them how ephemeral the wealth in which they trusted is, and how it could easily be taken away from them at any moment. Wheat, wine, and oil are precious, but woe to those who make them the only purpose of existence.
The experience of Israel is a lesson for us, often deceived by false promises of complete happiness that come from the goods of this world. When we fall back on the material, considering them absolute, we always end up finding ourselves alone, disappointed and in a condition of death. Our comrades are in tears, full of lament, and the bitterness of sin.
What are we to do? The heartfelt invitation that the Lord, by the mouth of his prophet, addressed to the Israelites is also valid for us: “Return to the Lord, your God with all your heart” (v. 12).
Lent is a time to return to the Father’s house. We return home only when we are sure of being greeted by someone who loves us. If we remain stubbornly tied to the familiar image we have of a God who enters into our schemes, of an Almighty who keeps his distance, establishes commands and prohibitions and demands respect, and of a God who is ready to punish, then we will not return willingly to him.
The first conversion of Lent, the most urgent and essential, then, is a readjustment and even correction of the image of God we are attached to. It is an image that our mind created, but not derived from the Word of God. The God of the Bible is not one who repays with, but one who recovers and heals the wounds caused by human sin.
Here’s how the prophet Joel presents him today: “He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, full of kindness and he repents of having punished” (v. 13). It’s not enough to have realized that God loves us, awaits us, and will assure temporal goods. He will not scold and punish us for our mistakes. We must have the courage to decide to embark on the journey.
Along the road that leads to the Lord, we must take into account that we will encounter difficulties. There will be sacrifices, painful cuts, and radical choices to make. For this reason, Lent is also a time of austerity, preparation for renouncement, deprivation, the stripping of all that weighs down our steps.
The approach to God will be accompanied—as Joel explains—by “laceration of the heart,” by “fasting, weeping, and mourning” (v. 12). However, we are not alone in the path of conversion. Next to us, there are many brothers and sisters who travel the same road, who encourage us by their words and by their example, who join us in “solemn assembly” (vv. 15-16) and, with the “ministers of Lord” together we ask God: “Forgive, O Lord, thy people” (v. 17).
The reading does not report the Lord’s answer to the prayers of his people, but Joel’s prophecy continues: “Fear not, O earth! Exult and rejoice. The threshing floors will be full of grain, the vats overflowing with new wine and oil. I will compensate you for the years devastated by grasshoppers, maybugs, crickets, and locusts. You will eat and be satisfied, and you will praise the name of the Lord, your God, who has done wonders for you” (Jl 2:21,24-26).
Sin has destroyed our lives, left us dry and skeletal like the trees of the countryside devoured by locusts. But sin will not have the final say. God’s merciful love will have the last word. He will transform the desert into a garden. Lent is a time of hope and joyful expectation: despite our denial, our weakness, our hesitation, God will guide our steps towards meeting him.
Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20—6:2
Conversion is the central theme of Lent. In the First Reading, the invitation to conversion is formulated with these words: “Return to the Lord with all your heart” (Jl 2:12). For Joel, conversion is a way to go backwards. Those who have put themselves on a wrong path are invited to retrace their steps. People who have traveled the roads leading to the temples of the idols—which for us are money, success and pleasure at all cost—should abandon them and “return” to God.
In the Second Reading, Paul takes up the same theme, but with a different image, he speaks of reconciliation. Even his exhortation is heartfelt: “Let God reconcile you!” He sees sin as a disagreement, a state of enmity, a discrepancy of views and intent between God and humanity. This hostility has to be overcome; it is necessary to restore harmony.
Paul’s painful experience with the Christians of Corinth to whom he is writing suggested the image of reconciliation. A few months previously, the Corinthians grievously offended Paul. They had even kicked him out of their communities. It was not over a trivial misunderstanding or disagreement. It was the Gospel message itself—announced by Christ through the mouth of Paul—that had been placed in question and dismissed. That’s why the apostle reminds the Corinthians: “We are ambassadors for Christ as if God himself makes an appeal to you through us” (v. 20). It is not possible to reconcile with God without keeping the deal with his apostles, with those who are his spokespersons.
We have here a valuable indication for our Lenten journey. Reconciliation with God is not achieved through purification rites and ascetic practices, but through adherence to the message that is transmitted by God’s ambassadors—the heralds of His Word (Rom 10:14,17).
In the last part of the reading (6:1-2), paraphrasing a text of the prophet Isaiah (Is 49:8), Paul recalls the urgency of reconciliation with God: “This is the favorable time, this is the day of salvation” (6:2). Lent is an opportunity offered to us to rectify today, without delay, our relationship with the Lord.
Gospel: Matthew 6:1-6,16-18
The good God has put in our hearts the need to feel valued and appreciated. It is a precious stimulus to occupy actively our place within the community.
The exclusion, lack of recognition, and indifference are perceived to be a condemnation of marginalization. If others do not consider us, we feel we are a nobody; it is as if we do not exist. From the legitimate joy that is communicated to us by people’s approval, we can slip into the idolatry of our own image, in the frantic search for visibility at any cost, to the point of becoming slaves to the gaze of others and to live in a fantasy world of images, by simply showing off.
The first words that Jesus addresses to us at the beginning of this Lent, caution us against the danger of acting with conceit (v. 1). If we do not seek the admiration of people, what then must be the goal of our actions?
In today’s passage, Jesus stresses seven times the reward reserved for those who behave according to his teachings. The concept of reward was one of the cornerstones of the pharisaical religiosity: the godly man—the rabbis taught—with the observance of the commandments and precepts, accumulates merit before God and will be rewarded with blessings and well-being. However, he wicked one “is indebted” and will only serve his own faults, in this or in the other life.
This was a theological conviction based on Old Testament texts and shared by all. Rabbi Akiba was one of the most famous rabbis at the beginning of the second century A.D. He explained it thus to his disciples: “When I see that the wine of my master does not sour, that his linen is not dented, his oil does not rot, his honey does not become rancid, I am sad because he is receiving all reward of his good deeds in this world. But when I see him in pain, I am delighted because he is saving goods that will be delivered to him in the future world.”
Is it in this sense that Jesus speaks of reward? The Gospel often mentions the “prize” reserved for the righteous, and also the “punishment” of the wicked: “The Son of Man shall come in the glory of his Father with the holy angels, and he will reward each one according to his deeds” (Mt 16:27). He invites us to “store up treasures for yourself with God, where no moth or rust can destroy it, nor thief comes and steals it" (Mt 6:20).
At first glance this form of reward is fine with us: it is perfectly in tune with our way of understanding ‘justice,’ but does it conform to the Gospel? Jesus taught us to give our lives freely and disinterestedly. Does it make sense, then, to act in view of a reward? Is doing good to accumulate merit, not a selfish calculation? Does the religion of merit not reduce God to the level of an accountant?
The reward, which Jesus refers to, is not a better place or the highest in heaven, but the increased capacity to love, the most intimate union, the sharpest resemblance to the face of the Father. The “prize” is the joy of loving gratuitously, as God does; it is that sense of belonging to his “Kingdom.”
We may be sons and daughters of God as infants (1 P 2:1) or as those who have already come a long way on the path towards the unattainable goal, which is the perfection of the Father who is in heaven (Mt 5:48). To progress in this maturation at the beginning of Lent, Jesus proposes three ascetical practices: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. They formed the pillars of the Jewish spirituality and he presents them again in a new perspective, his own.
The first: almsgiving.
In any village in Israel, there were, at the time of Jesus, people responsible for collecting and distributing aid to the poor, orphans, widows, and wayfarers. This charitable institution had undeniable merits but, for many, was often transformed into an opportunity to strut and swagger in public.
During the liturgical celebration of the Sabbath, there was the habit of publicly praising those who had made a generous donation. They were invited to stand up in the assembly and held up as examples to all. They were accompanied to the place of honor, and invited to sit alongside the rabbis.
Jesus has often witnessed—and certainly with deep unease—these shows and in fact, has described those who let themselves be put on the stage as “hypocrites” (actors). He was not shocked; he just felt sorry because, for a moment of vanity, these people—even really good ones—squandered the precious opportunity to do good without being noticed, as God does, hiding to such an extent that we can even doubt about his existence.
Rather than “almsgiving,” today we speak of solidarity, of sharing, of attention to the needs of others. The term “alms” sounds a bit archaic, but it should be preserved because its etymological meaning is profound. It comes from a Greek root verb meaning to be moved, to have mercy, to intervene on behalf of those in need because of emotional involvement in people’s problems. If we want to further deepen the sense of almsgiving, we recall that, in the Hebrew language, there is a term to define it. This is simply called ‘tzedakah’—justice.
For a Jew—and thus also for Jesus—almsgiving is not to drop a few cents from above, but to restore justice, to recognize that the goods of this world do not belong to humans but to God. Whoever has taken more must return more to those to whom the Father destined them.
It is a lie to speak of mine, yours, his and ours because, “The earth and its fullness belong to the Lord, the world and its inhabitants” (Ps 24:1). People are only guests invited to his banquet. This is why Jesus recommended his disciples to do justice in secret: “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (vv. 3-4).
This self-complacency is out of place and the beneficiary should not feel any discomfort or feel indebted to those who do good because he is only giving back what belongs to the Father in heaven. The Church Fathers had understood this truth well. Just to mention one, St. Ambrose said to the rich: “Remember that you do not give what is yours to the poor; you only give back what is due to them.”
The second Lenten practice: prayer.
Today prayer is in crisis, not because of ill will on behalf of the faithful, but because it is not easy to understand its value or how to do it. How to pray during Lent? Repeating more frequently the prayers that we have been taught?
Jesus recommended, “not to use a lot of words as the pagans do, for they believe that the more they say, the more chance they have of being heard” (Mt 6:7).
We also ask: Why present to God what he already knows? “Your Father knows what you need even before you ask Him” (Mt 6:8). Why solicit his intervention if he already desires good for man? Can our prayer force him to change his plan?
At the time of Jesus—as it is now—there were two forms of prayer: one public and one private. Public prayer was made in the temple, in the synagogues and in the streets, twice a day. At nine in the morning and three in the afternoon, while at the temple, the sacrifice was being offered and every devout Jew, wherever he was, turned toward Jerusalem and joined spiritually with the rite that was celebrated there.
Jesus does not condemn this practice. He remained faithful to it but warns against the danger of “losing the reward,” that is, to ruin it, to render it ineffective, through ostentation.
Then he focuses on the other form of prayer, private prayer, the one made in your own room, behind closed doors, in intimacy with the Father “who sees in secret.” This prayer is not a repetition of formulas or even a list of demands. It is a dialogue with God, not to convince him to do our will and to fulfill our dreams, but to be introduced to his thought, to internalize his designs and to receive from him the strength to carry out the task assigned to us in the building of his kingdom.
Prayer is first of all listening with an openness of heart to welcome God’s plans and not to disappoint his expectations. It is time-consuming and also needs an ambient conducive to concentration and meditation.
Jesus knew how to pray, and also to choose suitable places, as the evangelists remind us: “Very early in the morning, before daylight, Jesus went off to a lonely place where he prayed” (Mk 1:35); “And having sent the people off, he went by himself to the hillside to pray” (Mk 6:46); “As for Jesus he would often withdraw to solitary places and pray” (Lk 5:16); “Jesus spent the whole night in prayer with God” (Lk 6:12).
This prayer always gets “its reward”: it keeps human thoughts and actions in harmony with those of God.
The third practice: fasting.
It exists in every religion as an expression of mourning and pain. It is often accompanied by gestures such as the renunciation of body care, sleeping on the ground, sprinkling oneself with dust and ash, and dressing in sackcloth.
In Jesus’ time, it was believed that it was highly meritorious: it served to amend sins, to move the Lord to pity, to avert his punishment, and to ward off calamities. In Israel, it had assumed such an importance that a saying circulated in the Roman Empire: “Fasting as a Jew.” The most pious came to abstain completely from food from dawn to dusk, two days per week, on Mondays and Thursdays (Lk 18:12) and every teacher gave precise instructions to his disciples on this point.
That being the case, the little importance given to fasting in the New Testament is surprising. In his letters, Paul never mentions it and Jesus speaks of it only on two occasions: one to justify his disciples who do not practice it (Mt 9:14), the other—the one we find in today’s Gospel—to indicate the provisions that characterize the true fast.
The Christian community is aware of having the bridegroom with them “always even to the end of this world” (Mt 28:20), therefore she does not fast “as do the hypocrites, they put on a gloomy face” (v. 16). Fasting of the disciple has a radically different meaning: it is not an expression of mourning and grief, but of joy for the presence in the world of God’s Kingdom.
The Christian fast requires “washing your face and make yourself look cheerful.” No effort is exerted; sacrifice is not to be noticed. The fasting Christian is happy because, with his renouncement, he has the joy of seeing the poor enjoying the relief given by his gift. This fasting is different from that of the Pharisees and is in line with the prophets who have severely condemned false fasting. They said: It's enough to call "bowing down one's head and making use of sackcloth and ashes” (Is 58:4-5), while oppressing your laborers, striking each other with wicked blows, as fasting for a day is pleasing to the Lord.
This is the acceptable fast in God’s eyes: “breaking the fetters of injustice and unfastening the thongs of the yoke, setting the oppressed free and breaking every yoke. Fast by sharing your bread with the hungry, bring to your house the homeless, clothe the one you see naked” (Is 58:6-7). “Render true judgment, be kind and merciful to each other. Do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the alien or the poor, do not plot evil in your heart against one another” (Zec 7:9-10).
Fasting always gets these “rewards”: it detaches the heart from the goods of this world; it helps forget your own self-interests; it creates love and sharing; and it puts yourself in the Kingdom of God.
READ: Jesus continues to deal with aspects of daily life—charity, prayer, fasting—that form part of all religions. He teaches his followers how to pray.
REFLECT: How do charity, prayer, and fasting form part of my everyday life? Notice how the prayer that Jesus taught us, the Our Father, first praises God and then asks for something (bread and forgiveness in the measure in which we forgive) and finally ends with the hope that we may never be in a situation we cannot handle.
PRAY: Pray with the purity of intention so that we can see for ourselves what we really are, and realize that nothing anyone will think or say of us can add or subtract to the person we are.
ACT: When you pray, be aware of the fact that in praying, you are united with all the Christians throughout the world.