Why fast during Lent? One can certainly find a variety of answers among Catholics. We fast in order to do penance for our sins, as a means of reminding ourselves of our constant need to repent, in order to develop self-discipline, in order to remind ourselves of the greater priorities in our lives by doing without some pleasures that we might tend to overemphasize. Personal spiritual growth is, of course, important. But that it is not the primary purpose for fasting during Lent. Rather, the shared fast calls us to solidarity with others, especially to solidarity as church.
Movements such as the Rice Bowl collection call us to let others benefit from our fasting by giving the money we save on luxuries to people in need of the basics. That idea urges us to a sense of solidarity with the poor and oppressed. Hopefully, as we make our donations, we also reflect on the connections between the abundance experienced by some and the deprivation of others. At the very least, we might resolve to simplify our daily lives beyond the season of Lent in order to share more generously with others. Beyond such a resolution, we might do what we can to speak out about the inequities in our economic systems, about issues such as living wages, fair housing and equal opportunities for education. That sort of fasting seems to be in line with the exhortations found, for example, in Isaiah 58 which contrasts a self-serving practice with “loos[ing] the bonds of injustice and let[ting] the oppressed go free….”
The Lenten fast should also connect us with one another in the church. The practice of fasting during Lent grew out of two practices in the early church: a fast in preparation for the Paschal celebration (remembrance of the death and resurrection of Christ), and a fast associated with the final preparation of adult catechumens for baptism. As part of the latter, at least the clergy and sponsors, but preferably the entire church, were urged to fast together with those to be baptized. The two practices of fasting came together as Easter became the preferred time for baptism. Moreover, the meanings of the two practices coalesced naturally as each stressed turning away from an old way of life and opening up to the salvation offered by God in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The connection between Lent and preparation for baptism was lost for centuries as infant baptism became the normal practice, but the bishops at Vatican II called for its recovery when they decreed that the adult catechumenate was to be restored along with a revised rite for Baptism of Adults (SC 64–66). The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults promulgated in 1972 calls for the entire congregation to participate in the final preparation of the catechumens during Lent. It should, therefore, urge us to view our Lenten fasting and prayer as praying together with them that the new life to which they are called in baptism will be fruitful.
The experience of RCIA in the parish should call us as well to examine again our own commitment to our Christian vocation, which is a call to community in Christ by the power of the Spirit. It is a call to involve ourselves fully in the mission of the church to be “a sign and instrument of communion with God and of the unity of the entire human race (LG 1).”
So fasting during Lent is much more than an individual spiritual exercise. It binds us to one another in the practice and sharing of our faith. That perspective, it seems to me, adds a new dimension to questions of meaning and effectiveness of Lenten practices.
(Corinne Winter is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)