The Gospel accounts are replete with examples of how not to fast; the above reading from Matthew’s Gospel account is perhaps the one with which we are best acquainted. Our Lord reminds us that fasting, and in fact, all virtue that is autonomous and selfish is not only contrary to righteousness but to be condemned. It is only when fasting is an act of love for God, a hunger and thirst for the presence of Christ, that fasting is redemptive. Our Lord is clear on how we are not to fast; however, the question remains, how should we fast? It seems to me that there are three specific ways in which people fast.
The first way I call the Individualist’s fast. This kind of fasting sees fasting as a way for an individual to give up or sacrifice something they like. There is certainly nothing inherently wrong with this. It can help us learn to live with less, instill within us a sense of gratitude, and can help free time for more noble pursuits. This might come as a surprise to some, but this is not the fasting of the Church. This fasting might help us pursue virtue, but it leaves us as isolated individuals.
The second way I call the Religious fast. This kind of fast keeps the form, often quite rigorously, of the Church’s fast, but lacks the true spirit of the fast. This is the fasting that leads us to read the ingredients on the side of the box of cookies. We sadly shake our head if we see that it was made on a machine that might have come into contact with egg, and with great self-discipline, we return the box to the shelf. Or, if the cookies are without animal product, we rejoice and celebrate by eating half the box, needless to say, this is not the fasting of the Church.
The third way is the Ecclesial fast. This is the fast that we share and the fast that the Church as our faithful Mother teaches us. This is the fast that is an act of fellowship with the fullness of the Church; we fast and we feast as a community. With this fast, eating, drinking, hunger, and thirst, experiences of self-preservation, are transcended, becoming events of communion. In fasting as the Church teaches, we have a common experience with Christians throughout the world, parents and grandparents, the martyrs, and the saints, and even those yet to be born who will strive to live their lives according to the rhythm of the Church. This is the fast of the Church – the bride of Christ, a fast of preparation and active anticipation for the coming of the Bridegroom and the celebration of His Resurrection. The Christian fasts in “obedience to the common will and common practice of the Church, and subjugates his individual preferences to the Church rules of fasting which determine his choice of food. And obedience freely given always presupposes love: it is always an act of communion.”