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Fasting Is Necessary

Fr. Slavko

Fasting Is Necessary
Written by Fr. Slavko Barbaric, O.F.M
Saturday, 05 March 2005

The following article is an excerpt from the writings of the late Fr. Slavko Barbaric, parish priest from St. James parish, Medjugorje, in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Time and time again, the Evangelists speak about fasting and report that Jesus recommended fasting to make progress in the spiritual life. What Jesus has said about fasting can be summed up in this way:
– Fasting is as necessary as prayer (cf. Mt 6:16).
– The resolution to fast (or to pray) ought to be a pure intention, free from all self-righteousness or pride. Consider the case of the Pharisee who used His prayer to show off his piety and to express his contempt for the publican, a truly humble man (cf. Lk 18:9-14).
– Jesus declared that His disciples would fast just like John's disciples, but not until He had departed from this world: "As long as the bride-groom is present, the wedding guests do not fast" (cf. Mt 9:15-16).
– When Jesus explained to His disciples why they were unable to deliver a man from demonic possession, He ascribed a special power to fasting. On that occasion He stated that certain demons cannot be expelled except by prayer, and the Evangelist Mark adds, "... and by fasting" (cf. Mk 9:29).
– According to Luke, Jesus did not eat for the forty days He was in the desert. In other words, Jesus fasted before proclaiming the Gospel. This was immediately after His baptism in the river Jordan (cf. Lk 4:1-4). While Jesus did not explicitly command His disciples to practice fasting, it would seem obvious that He expected them to do so.
The Early Christians did fast, in fact, and in doing so continued a tradition which had started long before with the Jewish people in the Old Testament.

Fasting In the Early Church

Fasting formed part of the Jewish tradition, and it is known to have been practiced also in Greco-Roman civilization. The Jewish tradition recommended only one official fast-day, the Day of Atonement, which was a day of devotion. However, people would often fast twice a week, on Monday and on Thursday (cf. Lk 18:22). In the Psalms we find revealing verses, such as, "When they were sick, I put sackcloth on, I humbled my soul with fasting, murmuring prayers to my own breast" (Ps 35:13), or: "My knees totter from my fasting, and my flesh is wasted of its substance" (Ps 109: 24).
The early Church introduced two fast-days a week, Wednesday and Friday. Some of the faithful would fast on Saturday as well, in preparation for the Lord's Day. The practice of fasting gradually became more and more widespread. A fast began to be kept for entire weeks, during Holy Week, for example; and as early as the third century, the Church introduced the forty-day fasting period of Lent, in preparation for Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus. Clearly the early Church saw fasting as valuable and necessary.

Fasting Remains Necessary As a Sign of Our Expectation

From a theological point of view, fasting will no longer be necessary after the final coming of Christ, for the wedding guests do not have any reason to fast as long as the bridegroom is with them (cf. Mt 9:15). So, since Jesus is still to return in His glory, fasting remains necessary as a sign of our expectation. That perspective gives new sense and meaning to fasting, and since it makes us focus on the Lord who is to come, it now acquires an eschatological dimension.
We can conclude from what has been said, that the Church recognizes fasting, has been practicing it throughout its history, and has given fasting its true meaning. In certain religious communities fasting has been maintained as a practice up to the present day.
By reading the lives of the Saints, we can ascertain that they attributed great importance to fasting. In the Rules for his Community, Saint Francis of Assisi urged his friars to keep three forty-day fasts during the year (Lent, before the feast of Saint Michael, and from All Saints until Christmas), and to fast every Friday as well.
Nowadays, the requirements of the Church are less strict. There are, in fact, only two days left when fasting is obligatory, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Nonetheless, the apparitions at Medjugorje have focused new attention on fasting. Yet, even before the events in Medjugorje, which have restored fasting to the Universal Church, the practice of it went well beyond the minimum requirements of the Church among our people, especially in Herzegovina. This is undoubtedly due to the influence of Franciscan spirituality. There are many faithful, especially among young girls and mothers of families, who fast on Tuesday (Saint Anthony's day), for the twelve days before the Feast of the Assumption, on the vigil of great feast days, and during Lent. There was a time when our people from Medjugorje and the surrounding areas would keep a strict fast even in the summer, during the heavy work in the fields.
The events at Medjugorje have not been the means for introducing something new or novel, but rather, have succeeded in bringing about a revival of the practice of fasting, a practice already present in the Church and in Medjugorje.

A New Revival of Its Practice

The "messages" from Our Lady of Medjugorje, like any of the other elements that lend authenticity to an apparition, cannot contain new revelations about God's plans concerning us, nor can they reveal new truths regarding the Church. Such "messages" could not possibly innovate or modify the revelation given by Jesus to the Apostles. Apparitions are always a sign that God continues to address Himself to His children, and to encourage us to persevere on our journey towards Him. Most often He calls us through the mediation of Mary. Sometimes Jesus Himself speaks to us. Such interventions are no more than an encouragement to keep up practices that have been known and have been traditional for a long time. The call to fasting at Medjugorje which Mary directs to our age is only a repetition of what Jesus had already taught, and of what the early Church had put into practice and with such great zeal.
When we study the Old Testament, and examine in detail the various situations in which the people were urged to fast in those days, we find that prayer and fasting could bring about change or relief even in the most critical situations. This remains as true today as it did then.

Our Lady Wants To Reeducate Us

Let us now look at fasting in the context of our own time. When Our Lady asks us to say the Apostles Creed every day, it would seem that she wants to show us, in this way, that we live in an "impious" situation. She certainly wants to tell us something like this: "It is not enough to say the Creed; one must radically adhere to God who has given Himself to us in an ineffable way in the person of Jesus Christ." That is Our Lady's method of giving instruction, and it is interesting to note that, like all good teachers, she assigns concrete tasks.
Her request that we fast is in accordance with the tradition of the Church. We can also go on record as saying that her view of our age—which is almost exclusively interested in money, profit, the accumulation of material wealth, greed, and so on—is correct. Our Lady wants to re-educate us. But where should she begin?

Fasting Will Lead Us To a New Freedom of Heart and Mind

In the first place, Mary calls upon us to pray and to fast. By prayer we attach ourselves to God and by fasting we detach our heart from the good things that tie us to the affairs of this world. Fasting will lead us to a new freedom of heart and mind. Fasting is a call for conversion directed to our body. In a word, it is the process by which we become free from and independent of all material things. And as we free ourselves from things outside of ourselves, we also free ourselves from the passions within us that are keeping our interior life in chains. This new freedom will make room in our body for new values. Therefore, fasting liberates us from a certain bondage and sets us free to enjoy happiness.

An Actual Experience

To confirm what I have said so far, I quote a testimony just as it was given to me by a pilgrim to Medjugorje:
I had begun to fast because my wife and my children did it; I did not want my wife to cook for me alone. At first, nothing remarkable happened. I knew that I was distracted in my prayers. I would listen to the word of God, but I did not experience any noticeable effect from it and did not have the impression that I was changing under its influence. I would listen to it and then go about my business, but nothing in me was changed.
One day it became imperative to me that I change my manner of praying. It seemed to me that my new view of prayer was the result of the silent reflection which was brought about during my days of fasting. In the beginning I was constantly battling my need to eat and drink, and would then put off my prayer till the following morning. Once, something happened which clearly demonstrated the efficacy of prayer. For a long time I had been on bad terms with my brother, and I had grown accustomed to that situation. We were not on speaking terms, and it did not bother me in the least that our wives and children did not know each other at all. Approximately one year after I had begun to fast, I became aware that the situation was causing me distress and making me uneasy. I continued to pray and fast. And then, one morning, I had the extraordinary feeling of being relieved of a burden. I went to see my brother and asked his forgiveness. He was ready also. Praise the Lord, and thanks be to Him! Now we live as true brothers. Right now, that is the most important thing to me.

What Is Needed Is a Radical Return To God

Reading this testimony, we notice that fasting was a help to this man in finding his own self again and in having another close look at his relation to God and to other people. As soon as his prayer began to bear fruit in his heart, he did not have to wait long for his new relationship with God to flow over into a renewed relationship with his brother. How well this example proves that the evil acts of man cause him blindness! What is needed to make the disposition of our heart and mind change is a resolute, radical return to God. Fasting facilitates this return.
Fasting is not an end in itself, but it serves towards conversion: first, on the level of faith, and then, on the social level, for "Christians...can prevent war and even natural calamities by prayer and fasting."

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