26 February 2012

Dying to Self: The Lenten Fast

With its fast and penitential exercises, Lent enables us to associate ourselves with and participate spiritually in Christ’s work of redemption. In rebellion against God, our souls have truly become slaves of the world, the flesh and the devil. To break that slavery, we need the grace of God which comes with abstention and fasting coupled with prayer and almsgiving. For as the holy fathers teach us, our fasting from food is unhelpful unless we are striving to fast from sin by subduing our passions of our flesh, which are enticed by the devil and fueled by society’s aberrant morality. Therefore, during the holy season of Lent, we are invited by the Church both to put into practice the teachings of Christ and to follow His example in fighting the devil and the powers of evil by means of self-denial as we attend to His holy Word.

Lent is a kind of retreat from the world. Just as Our Lord, after His baptism, retreated from the world for forty days to immerse Himself in fasting and prayer, so we follow His example. Yet our retreat is not to fight our own battles, just as Our Lord’s retreat was not to fight His own battle. Our Lord retreated in order to enter into our fray; and we retreat in order to participate in His passion. He strove against Satan so that, on the cross, He might overcome Him and win for us the victory. We wrestle and strive “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” so that we might not lose the blood-bought victory, and might attain the crown. This retreat, then, ought not be seen as a means of winning what we do not have, but as a means of not losing what we’ve already been given, and also a means of growing in what we already have.

Dying to ourselves so that we might live to God in Christ is the purpose of this holy quarantine. The question the devil continually put to Christ is little different from the question the accuser asks us. To Our Lord he said, “Are you truly the Son of God?” To us the devil asks, “Are you truly a child of God?” As the accuser, Satan produces evidence of which we are all too familiar—evidence from our past, evidence from our desires and passions, evidence that may even lurk deeply within us. This evidence the devil with throw up against us in order to cause us to question our status as a child of God. Because this evidence comes to mind especially when we fast, we need to be more reliant upon the grace of the absolution of God. Frequency in the Sacrament of Penance, then, is necessary during the Lenten fast.

Yet we must not also lose sight of the devil’s desire. With Christ, the devil desired that He not re-enter the world as the Savior and Messiah. With us, the devil desires that we not re-enter the world as children of God. His goal is to beat us down so that we question both Our Lord’s love for us and our desire to live for Him, and thereby give in to our passions thinking that we can put off holiness for another moment or day. So during this Lenten fast, let us be clear-minded by recalling both that Our Lord was tempted in all points as we are so that He might overcome our adversary; and also that we retreat not to avoid re-entry but so that we might increase in holiness. To increase in holiness means that we decrease in self-reliance while increasing in our dependence upon grace.

Decreasing in self-reliance is the death of self that fasting seeks to instill in us. No longer do we live to gratify our flesh; now we live to love God by gratifying whatever another desires. Our hold, then, on the things of this world must loosen, as Christ teaches us so plainly in His great sermon (cf Luke 6.27-36). Likewise, our fear of missing out—which so often drives the “need” to feed our passions by the feeling that we need to experience all that “life” offers—also must die. Fasting, when properly practiced, teaches both our body and our soul this self-mortification. As we put to death the desires of the flesh, we will see, through prayer, that the desire of the spirit will enhance our life and thereby increase our joy. A greater detachment from the empty pleasures this world offers will lead us to be more generous both in our almsgiving to others as well as in our time to God in worship and prayer.

Let this Lenten fast, then, be the occasion and means for leaning less upon our desires and more upon God’s unending grace. Let it purify our souls as we seek to cleanse our bodies. Above all else, let this holy season by a time when we immerse ourselves more and more in the faith and love which the Spirit has so generously poured upon us so that we might truly seek and find our happiness and treasures not in the pleasures of this world but in the unfading riches of the life of the world to come.

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