As with any spiritual discipline, there are pitfalls to be avoided, and Jesus Himself refers to them. He warns against practicing our piety before others, so He lays down some rules for the kind of fasting He wants His followers to do. Specifically, we are told to avoid doing anything that would draw attention to the fact that we are fasting. He sure knows how to take the fun out of it. In a sermon given on fasting, St. Augustine of Hippo writes, “For in this work also we must be on our guard, lest there should creep in a certain ostentation and hankering after the praise of man, which would make the heart double, and not allow it to be pure and single for apprehending God.” If our fasting is mixed with a certain secret desire for people to notice us, we really are not concentrating on God, and our fasting will not be for the purification of our souls. This means that when you fast, you should not express irritation about fasting or what you are or are not allowed to eat, or ask others what they are doing, or come into church for Lenten services staggering as if faint from hunger. All of that just feeds the ego, and the devil blesses the effort.1
I think it is pride that causes us to loudly proclaim what we have done for Lent. Or pride that causes us to only consider giving up chocolate, as if that is a true spiritual discipline. Perhaps the best Lenten practices are those no one sees, is told to no one, and done quietly so that there is time only to hear the Voice of God.
Michael Keiser, A Beginner’s Guide to Spirituality: The Orthodox Path to a Deeper Relationship with God (Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2007), 62–63. ↩
Beloved people, we want to tell you about this holy time that has now arrived, in which we have an especially greater fast and abstinence than in any other common time, when we do this for the help and cleansing of our souls and also because Christ himself established an example of this fast for us. It is written that the Savior went immediately after his baptism to a certain desert and fasted there for forty days and forty nights together before he everywhere openly taught humankind. He did not fast because he ever committed a sin and had need to atone for it with that fast. But he fasted so that he might heal and redeem the sins of humankind and set an example for us so we might know that everyone who thinks that he might obtain the joy of heaven now must by fasting and by alms and by frequent prayers and by bodily abstinence earn it here in the world and by no means by gluttony or by drunkenness or by bodily lusts. Moreover, Christ was suffering in the desert when the accursed Devil found him, as we are about to tell you.1
Bernard McGinn, ed., Anglo-Saxon Spirituality: Selected Writings (trans. Robert Boenig; The Classics of Western Spirituality; New York; Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2000), 148. ↩
“I believe there is no liturgy in the world, either in ancient or modern language, which breaths more a solid, scriptural, rational piety, than the Common Prayer of the Church of England.” – John Wesley
While not exactly a Lenten prayer, it is in the Lenten spirit,
O JESUS, POOR AND ABJECT, UNKNOWN AND DESPISED,
have mercy upon me, and let me not be ashamed to follow Thee.
O JESUS, HATED, CALUMNIATED, AND PERSECUTED,
have mercy upon me, and let me not be ashamed to come after Thee.
O JESUS, BETRAYED AND SOLD AT A VILE PRICE,
have mercy upon me, and make me content to be as my Master.
O JESUS, BLASPHEMED, ACCUSED AND WRONGFULLY CONDEMNED,
have mercy upon me, and teach me to endure the contradiction of sinners.
O JESUS, CLOTHED WITH A HABIT OF REPROACH AND SHAME,
have mercy upon me, and let me not seek my own glory.
O JESUS, INSULTED, MOCKED, AND SPIT UPON,
have mercy upon me, and let me run with patience the race set before me.
O JESUS, DRAGGED TO THE PILLAR, SCOURGED, AND BATHED IN BLOOD,
have mercy upon me, and let me not faint in the fiery trial.
O JESUS, CROWNED WITH THORNS, AND HAILED IN DERISION;
O JESUS, BURDENED WITH OUR SINS, AND THE CURSES OF THE PEOPLE;
O JESUS, AFFRONTED, OUTRAGED, BUFFETED, OVERWHELMED WITH INJURIES, GRIEFS, AND HUMILIATIONS;
O JESUS, HANGING ON THE ACCURSED TREE, BOWING THE HEAD, GIVING UP THE GHOST,
Have mercy upon me, and confirm my whole soul to Thy holy, humble, suffering Spirit.
O Thou who for the love of me hast undergone such an infinity of sufferings and humiliations, let me be wholly “emptied of myself,” that I may rejoice to take up my cross daily and follow Thee.
Enable me, too, to endure the pain and despise the shame; and, if it be Thy will, to resist even unto blood!
– REV. JOHN WESLEY (at age 20). Friday morning prayers – “A Collection of Forms of Prayer for Every Day in the Week”, 1733.
If your Lenten journey doesn’t last the year through, I think it is a waste.
Saint Peter Chrysologus (c.406-450), Bishop of Ravenna, Doctor of the Church
Sermon 8 ; CCL 24, 59 ; PL 52, 208
Exercises for Lent: almsgiving, prayer, fasting
My dear brethren, today we set out on the great Lenten journey. So let us take our food and drink along in our boat, putting onto the chest the abundant mercy we shall need. For our fasting is a hungry one, our fasting is a thirsty one if it isn’t sustained by goodness and refreshed by mercy. Our fasting will be cold, our fasting will flag if the fleece of almsgiving doesn’t clothe it, if the garment of compassion does not wrap it around.
Brethren, what spring is for the land, mercy is for fasting: the soft, spring winds cause all the buds on the plains to flower; the mercy of our fast causes all our seeds to grow until they blossom and bear fruit for the heavenly harvest. What oil is to the lamp, goodness is to our fast. As the oily fat sets the lamp alight and, in spite of so little to feed it, keeps it burning to our comfort all night long, so goodness makes our fasting shine: it casts its beams until it reaches the full brightness of self-restraint. What the sun is to the day, almsgiving is to our fast: the sun’s splendor increases the light of day, breaking through the dullness of the clouds; almsgiving together with fasting sanctifies its holiness and, thanks to the light of goodness, dispels from our desires anything that could petrify. In short, what the body is for the soul, generosity acts similarly for the fast: when the soul leaves the body it brings about death; if generosity abandons the fast, it is its death.
This just goes to show you how much better Luther was than his lackeys, you know, Calvin and that ZwinugilZingerZwingerZapper, no, well, then, that Zwingli feller. Some of the Reformers threw out the baby with the bathwater:
Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent; Matthew 4:1-11
A sermon by Martin Luther from his Church Postil.
The Fast and the Temptation of Christ
I. THE FASTING OF CHRIST.
I. This Gospel is read today at the beginning of Lent in order to picture before Christians the example of Christ, that they may rightly observe Lent, which has become mere mockery: first, because no one can follow this example and fast forty days and nights as Christ did without eating any food. Christ rather followed the example of Moses, who fasted also forty days and nights, when he received the law of God on mount Sinai. Thus Christ also wished to fast when he was about to bring to us, and give expression to, the new law. In the second place, Lent has become mere mockery because our fasting is a perversion and an institution of man. For although Christ did fast forty days, yet there is no word of his that he requires us to do the same and fast as he did. Indeed he did many other things, which he wishes us not to do; but whatever he calls us to do or leave undone, we should see to it that we have his Word to support our actions.
2. But the worst of all is that we have adopted and practiced fasting as a good work: not to bring our flesh into subjection; but, as a meritorious work before God, to atone for our sins and obtain grace. And it is this that has made our fasting a stench and so blasphemous and shameful, so that no drinking and eating, no gluttony and drunkenness, could have been as bad and foul. It would have been better had people been drunk day and night than to fast thus. Moreover, even if all had gone well and right, so that their fasting had been applied to the mortification of the flesh; but since it was not voluntary it was not left to each to do according to their own free will, but was compulsory by virtue of human commandment, and they did it unwillingly, it was all lost and to no purpose. I will not mention the many other evils as the consequences, as that pregnant mothers and their offspring, the sick and the weak, were thereby ruined, so that it might be called a fasting of Satan instead of a fasting unto holiness. Therefore we will carefully consider how this Gospel teaches us by the example of Christ what true fasting is.
3. The Scriptures present to us two kinds of true fasting: one, by which we try to bring the flesh into subjection to the spirit, of which St. Paul speaks in 2 Cor 6,5: “In labors, in watchings, in fastings.” The other is that which we must bear patiently, and yet receive willingly because of our need and poverty, of which St. Paul speaks in 1 Cor 4, 11: “Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst,” and Christ in Mt 9,15: “When the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, then will they fast.” This kind of fasting Christ teaches us here while in the wilderness alone without anything to eat, and while he suffers his penury without murmuring. The first kind of fasting, one can end whenever he wills, and can satisfy it by food; but the other kind we must observe and bear until God himself changes it and satisfies us. Hence it is much more precious than the first, because it moves in greater faith.
And from another sermon:
It is not wrong to fast in honor of the name of an apostle, or to confess during Lent. But neither does he who omits these things commit any evil by this omission. Let him who desires to fast and make confession, do so, but let not one censure, judge, condemn or quarrel with his fellow over the matter. One individual should be like- minded with another–tolerant of what the other does and regarding his action as right because in itself blameless.
I would tend to agree, in part, with Luther that Lent should not be about works or added Grace, but as with a fast, bringing the body under subjection.
‘We have fasted before you!’ they say. ‘Why aren’t you impressed? We have been very hard on ourselves, and you don’t even notice it!’
“I will tell you why!” I respond. “It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves. Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers. What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me. You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the LORD?
“No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help.
“Then your salvation will come like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal. Your godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the LORD will protect you from behind. Then when you call, the LORD will answer. ‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply. “Remove the heavy yoke of oppression. Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors! Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.
The LORD will guide you continually, giving you water when you are dry and restoring your strength. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring. Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities. Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls and a restorer of homes.
“Keep the Sabbath day holy. Don’t pursue your own interests on that day, but enjoy the Sabbath and speak of it with delight as the LORD’s holy day. Honor the Sabbath in everything you do on that day, and don’t follow your own desires or talk idly. Then the LORD will be your delight. I will give you great honor and satisfy you with the inheritance I promised to your ancestor Jacob. I, the LORD, have spoken!” (Isa 58:3-14 NLT)