By Christopher Carstens
Our secular culture devotes a great deal of attention to food, with cooking channels and food networks, restaurant commercials and food pyramids (or “plates,” as they are now called). Our supernatural culture, that of the Church, likewise gives great attention to food, especially during Lent and Easter.
I attended a conference recently where one session discussed food for Lent. Not only was some of the more traditional fare discussed, such as pancakes, hot cross buns and lamb, but a few strange offerings (at least to me) were mentioned, such as alligator and specially brewed bock beer for Lent. Alligator, in case you were wondering, is considered a part of the “fish” family and can be eaten on Fridays of Lent, and certain bock beers brewed by Benedictines were considered “liquid bread” and were often substitutes for more solid fare during Lent. Who knew?
When Lent begins, all Catholics who have turned 14 are to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and on each Friday of Lent. After turning 18 and until celebrating a 59th birthday, we are to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. But why?
On Ash Wednesday, we hear Jesus speak about fasting, and on the First Sunday of Lent, we are presented with his own example of fasting for 40 days in the desert. It is this fast that precedes and prepares him for his public ministry.
Something similar occurs in the Book of Revelation, where the Angel gives St. John a scroll and tells him to eat it. As John reports, “I took the small scroll from the angel’s hand and swallowed it. In my mouth it was like sweet honey, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour.” (Rv 10:10) The word of God that is sweet and nourishing compels us to go out and preach to others, often a difficult task.
Here, then, is the core purpose of food and drink, of fasting and abstaining during Lent: Like Jesus and John, the food we eat or don’t eat is meant to convert our hearts — and stomachs — to God, giving us an appetite for him and a thirst for serving his people.
Holy Thursday’s Mass is even named for a meal, the “Mass of the Lord’s Supper,” at which we recall that first Eucharist of Christ and anticipate the heavenly banquet to come. But this eucharistic meal, for which our 40-day diet has prepared us, demands we spend our newfound strength serving others.
As St. John Chrysostom famously said: “You have tasted the Blood of the Lord, yet you do not recognize your brother … You dishonor this table when you do not judge worthy of sharing your food someone judged worthy to take part in this meal … God freed you from all your sins and invited you here, but you have not become more merciful.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.1397)
Feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty are among the corporal works of mercy, and we are encouraged to perform these throughout this Jubilee Year and during Lent.
Far from simple deprivations, fasting and abstaining give us a hunger for God and the energy for good in the world. So eat up!