I live in a parish where most of the people are poor. How can I talk with them about fasting during Lent? How can I preach about fasting this Lent?
Earlier this year I was working with a few groups of people to prepare them for Lent. When I got to talking about fasting, I asked them, “How many of you eat meat every day?” No response. “How many eat meat three times a week?” A few hands went up. How many eat meat once a week?” A more, but there were still some who had not raised their hands. They probably have meat once every two or three weeks.
I explained, first of all, that abstinence means not eating meat and that fasting in the church’s understanding is eating one full meal and two smaller meals and no eating between meals. I thought this understanding in necessary because some have the idea that the fasting in the church means not eating anything.
It helps to explain that fasting is not just something physical. The readings from Isaiah 58 the next two days make that clear:
“This, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.”
This morning, preaching at the 10 am Ash Wednesday Mass in Dulce Nombre, to the Delegates of the Word from most of the villages. They had come in to Dulce Nombre, from some of the furthest parts of the parish, to get ashes to bring to their communities for a celebration this afternoon or evening.
I spoke about fasting from what keeps us from opening our hearts to the Lord so that we can celebrate our death and resurrection in Christ in a special way at the Easter Vigil.
If we fast from gossip, from the desire for vengeance, from the tendency to scold other, from quarrelling – we are going a long way to letting our hearts be rent.
But I also noted that on fast days we are called to only eat three times a day. So I put in an admonition to give up the mid-morning snack and the churros – chips and the like sold in small bags.
I am not sure this is the best way to speak about fasting and abstinence among the poor – but it’s a start.
But I also need to add, that fasting should open our hearts to God and to others. The third discipline of Lent – with prayer and fasting – is almsgiving, or, as we sometimes say here, charity.
But I think that is inadequate.
Almsgiving presumes a distance between the almsgiver and the one begging. I wonder if we would be better off, spiritually, when we think of sharing with the poor, who are part of our family.
This is what struck me this morning, while reading a passage from a Lenten sermon of Pope Saint Leo the Great, found in Benedictine Daily Prayer:
For such a holy fast there can be no better companion than almsgiving. But we must note that “almsgiving” or “mercy” here includes the many pious actions which make possible a familial equality among the faithful, whatever be the disparities between them in worldly wealth.
Our fasting should open us to our family in need.
But I wonder if many of the people I know need that message. How many times have I seen them helping someone in need – even a gringo whose car is broken?
I think some of them know better than I what St. Leo the Great also said in the same sermon:
Those who are less able to give material things can rival their richer neighbors in good will and love.