Fasting Friday: The Spirit and the Letter

Fasting Friday: The Spirit and the Letter March 20, 2020

The rules for fasting and abstinence in the United States are:

Every person 14 years or older must abstain from meat (and items made with meat) on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all the Fridays of Lent. Every person between the age of 18 and 59 (beginning of 60th year) must fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Them’s the rules.  But of course whenever the Church has to start talking about rules, what we are always looking at is the way a parent talks to a child who is too young to understand what is going on.  In other words, rules are always a concession to weakness, not an ideal.

When you have very little children, abstractions are beyond them.  You aren’t going to get very far with explaining the abstract concept of the common good to a small child. What kids want is rules.  In a child’s mind, it’s a big confusing world and we all do things as a family that I don’t really understand and it would never occur to me to ask the Deep Reasons why we do it.  Christmas presents?  It’s what we do.  Fireworks only on the Fourth.  Why?  Because.  It’s what we do.  Tonight I get to stay up till midnight because it’s what we do on New Year’s Eve.  Why?  Because it’s what we do.  “We” means “my immediate family” when we are little.

Later the circle widens to include others and we start to realize that the protocols and customs may vary depending on who you ask.  But for very small children, the question is about Doing the Correct Thing. What am I supposed to do?  How do I avoid looking dumb?  What’s the protocol?  So you tell the child, “Pick up 30 toys and put them in your toybox before you brush your teeth.”  The rules are established and the kid feels safe.  He has a clear idea of what to do and does not have to worry about accidentally transgressing the boundaries of a mysterious universe where the Powers might be offended.

The Church’s rules answer those kinds of questions for very simple folk and give people a framework they can function in.  Lent is when we Christians fast and abstain.  How?  Here’s how.

But sooner or later, a person eventually reaches the age where they start to ask “Why are we doing these things?”  It’s at that point we can either start transcending mere rules or, like the jailhouse lawyer, set about the project of trying to game the system.

If the former, then growth in discipleship to Jesus can proceed in a healthy way and we can start to see Lent as the Church hopes we will: as a participation in the fasting and self-denial and God-centeredness of Jesus in the desert.  We can start offering our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving as a unity in union with him who prayed and fasted and poured himself out for us to the Father in love.  After that, keeping the rules scarcely matters, because we are no longer thinking about the rules:  we are thinking about him and trying to imitate him.  We don’t keep rules out of fear of breaking them, but out of desire to be with him and like him and please him.

If the latter, then what is nearly always done is to assume a Minimum Daily Adult Requirement approach to Lent–and to everything else pertaining to the Christian life.  If you  approach the rules in the spirit of “What’s the absolute least I can get away with and still technically observe Lent?” you will have the same reward as the woman who asks the priest, on her wedding day, “How often do I have to kiss my husband?”  That’s not a relationship of love. That’s a contract.  The marriage is doomed, because there is no marriage to speak of.

Lenten rules are given by the Church to give a bare minimum framework to work in.  They are the floor, not the ceiling of Lenten observance.  They are like dance steps drawn on the floor so that people with no clue of what to do can start practicing something.  But the point of the dance step drawings is not the drawings.  The point of the dance steps is to learn the dance so well that the drawings are forgotten in the freedom of the dance.

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