In more recent times, there was a feeling that many practices such as fasting and abstinence had become so routine as to have so lost their real meaning and value.
In addition, as adult Catholics, people were thought to be mature enough to decide for themselves what penances would be most meaningful. Besides, it was believed that focusing on positive exercises like acts of charity rather than self-denial would be more beneficial.
What is the purpose of fasting? First, being hungry is a powerful reminder of the insignificance and frailty of the human condition. Hunger for food, our most basic need, shows us, better than any sermon can, that we are finite creatures destined for death.
Need for community
Hunger is a way to shock people out of the illusion of independence and remind them of the need for community if the human race is to survive.
Hunger serves as a lesson in humility. As all of us fasted, everyone was on the same basic level whether rich or poor, living in big houses or on the street.
At first glance, fasting seems to have little effect on others but it can be an effective way to eliminate real hunger in our world. How? The main purpose of fasting is to change one's heart. As more individual hearts are changed, society is changed too.
School for compassion
Second, hunger served as a school for compassion. When one has walked in another's shoes, one can more easily be with them and feel their sorrow and pain. People who fast and suffer hunger pangs can begin to appreciate, to a limited extent, the dehumanization, the hopelessness that hunger forces upon the very poor.
Not to ever experience hunger is to be deprived of one of the deepest sources of human compassion. Lack of compassion leads to "hardness of heart," which blinds us to the suffering of others and closes us to God's grace and the Holy Spirit's action within us.
Never being deprived makes it more difficult to be grateful for what we have as we tend to take things for granted. In general, it seems that having more than one needs leads to ingratitude and selfishness and so to destruction of community.
Perhaps, that's why fasting played an important role in the Church. From early Christian times, people fled from the abundance and selfishness in the cities into the desert to find God through fasting and prayer. Obviously, these ascetics knew something that seems to be forgotten in our affluent society.
Experiencing hunger while knowing we have sacrificed the next meal helps put a lot of things in perspective. It gives focus to our lives. We begin to realize how insignificant are many of the things about which we worry. We begin to appreciate what a gift life really is. We can open ourselves to God's presence and have room for God and others in our lives.
There is something that is in each of us that calls us to search for a deeper meaning to life and a need for self-surrender. This is evident when we see people exhibit heroic action in saving others. It is on the basis of this human ability and need for self-surrender that Christ calls his followers and the disciples to drop everything and follow Jesus.
Should the Church re-impose fasting? I don't know but I do know that there was something special in knowing we were all together doing the same thing during Lent.
Still today, a sort of kinship develops when one see others wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday, something like the early Christians must have felt when they recognized one another by using the fish symbol.
Let's not forget that we still do have required fast and abstinence for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. We can begin by taking this obligation seriously and reflecting on its meaning in the light of the Gospel.
The fast on Ash Wednesday can set the tone for our Lent by reminding us of the meaning of this emptying of self which Jesus sets out for us by his 40-day fast in the desert and his journey to Calvary ending with his death on the cross on Good Friday on which again we are called to fast.
The Church does not prevent us from fasting during the whole of Lent or any other time of year. By dropping its imposition of the two penitential elements, the Church expected us to incorporate fasting and abstinence as well as other forms of penance in our own lives.
We can begin by abstaining from meat or fasting on Fridays during Lent to identify more closely with Christ's suffering on the cross.
Or we can fast in ways which have nothing to do with food. We can fast from impatience or anger. We can fast from bad humour by smiling and greeting our co-workers and our families.
We can fast from TV and from video games as we used to fast from dancing during Lent.
When we are able to resist in indulging in things we don't really need, whether it be food or other luxuries, we become stronger in the face of life's more difficult trials. We will thus reap the spiritual benefits that have been part of Christianity ever since Jesus gave us the example by resisting temptation in the desert when he was hungry.
There are innumerable ways we can prepare our hearts and our minds for the glorious feast of Easter which can become a deep spiritual experience unencumbered by commercialization as is Christmas. So, be creative and experience the joy of what it truly means to be Christian.