Too many people have been taught to "give up something for Lent." As if the giving up of whatever we choose to give up in some way accomplishes the Lenten Fast. But the Lent Fast is not a “self-chosen” fast. For then we would simply give up silly things (like TV or foods we hate). Or we would turn fasting into a springtime diet (by giving up chocolate or dessert). Or we would make our fast “our own thing.”
The Scriptures teach us, however, that fasting is not to be done individually, but corporately. So Our Lord does not say, “When ye fast…” (“ye” is the older singular form) but rather, “When you
Our fast, then, is done together. It is not mine or yours. It is the Church’s fast in which we participate. This fast requires submission and trust—submitting and trusting the Lord in His holy Church. Because it is the Church’s fast and not our self-chosen fast, from the beginning the Church of both the Old and New Testament has given instruction on how to fast.
The Church’s fast may include refraining from certain foods, such as meat. However, the true fast is to go without food. Traditionally, this has meant eating only one meal each day (two snacks are also permitted) throughout Lent. For together we prepare for Easter; and so together we discipline our bodies by fasting so that we might support each other in the time of temptation, affliction or death.
Yet fasting from food is only a start. For what good is it if we starve our bodies, but our souls persist in sin? So the true fast is not just the giving up of foods, but even more so the giving up sins. So we fast by exercising self-control, by averting our eyes from images that corrupt the soul, by retraining our mouths from gossip and mean-speaking, and by concentrating our minds not on earthly pursuits but on attaining the kingdom of heaven.
In these ways, we sacrifice not just our bellies but all that we have and all that we are. And we sacrifice our time—by attending more and more to prayer during our fasting days. For fasting should always be coupled with prayer. For what good is it to refrain from certain pleasures if we do not seek the will of Our Father in heaven? So whenever we fast, we should also pray.
(NOTE: The above is an excerpt from a pamphlet published on Invocabit 2006 for Zion Church.)