March 9, 2015

Fasting is an essential part of Lent. To many, fasting means giving up some delicious treat. Maybe it is chocolate. Wine before dinner. Something we find yummy.

In truth, we still do that. In fact, some use this time to lose weight. Yes, we do lose weight, but it is the weight of emptiness and sin.

So many people in this world have so much; so many have little. Take a look at the city of Edmonton . The Food Bank distributes hampers to thousands of people every month. Forty per cent of its clients are under 18.

Pope Francis, in his Ash Wednesday Mass, expressed it beautifully: "Fasting makes sense if it really affects our security and if a benefit to others comes from it, if it helps us to grow in the spirit of the Good Samaritan, who bends down to his brother in need and takes care of him."

This sharing becomes a habit, he said.

Fasting, the pope continued, trains the heart to pursue what is essential in life and to share life's gifts. The choice to fast means opting for a life which does not waste things or throw them away.

"It is a sign of awareness and responsibility in the face of injustices, abuses, especially toward the poor and the little ones, and is a sign of our trust in God and his providence," the pope said.

One group of wealthy women in Edmonton was struck by the hunger and poverty in the inner city. They purchased heavy work socks, baked big potatoes, split them open, sprinkled them with salt and wrapped them in aluminum foil.

They put the hot potatoes in the socks and journeyed to the inner city. They gave the potato-stuffed socks to cold homeless inner city people, explaining they could use the socks on their feet or hands.

"That was the best Christmas I had," said one woman.

Many Catholics, like Carla Smiley, remember fasting as child.

"As a child I remember Good Friday. My family of seven all fasted. We did yard work and of course stopped to attend the service at our parish. I remember our fast being bread and water with an early evening meal of vegetarian soup to go with the bread."

Even as a child, Smiley knew the reason for fasting. "It was only once a year, and I regarded it as a hard day, but a necessary one to remember Christ's passion. We observed Ash Wednesday and all the Fridays in Lent."

That reverence wove its way into her heart.

"This childhood foundation was laid deeply within me, and I have always kept the Lenten fast beginning with Ash Wednesday," said Smiley. "It is challenging to live this every year, and every year I am grateful for this opportunity to start again, and to unpeel the next layer of the onion that is my interior life.

"I appreciate the rhythm of the Christian life of which this is a part. I have continued this observance with my own children."

Their family had a beautiful blessing too that makes this year's Lent a joyous occasion.

Her husband William was baptized last year. "With the ardour of new love, he keeps a strict fast every Friday. His witness is a challenging gift to our family." There have been more changes, good ones, in her practice of fasting.

Smiley and her family have woven their fast with sharing with those in need.

"We have a sacrifice jar on the counter and those family members who give up coffee, a treat or some entertainment put their money in the jar. At the end of Lent it goes to a Catholic charity."

She smiled. "On the plus side, fasting makes meal planning a breeze. 'Would you like some bread with that water?'"

Archbishop Richard Smith opens the heart of Lent with his reflection. "The Lenten fast expresses both sorrow and longing. Our sins separate us from God, who has revealed his unconditional love for us in his Son, Jesus Christ.

"When our consciences are awakened to how we have turned away from this love, there arises in our heart a profound sorrow and commitment to make amends."

How do we do this? By journeying through Lent, obeying the Church's guidance and weaving in Pope Francis' wisdom to share with those in need.

"Fasting is undertaken as penance for our sin, an act of reparation," explained Smith.

"At the same time, our sorrow gives birth to a deep longing for reconciliation with God, a profound desire to live once again the joy of communion with him. Fasting thus acknowledges the truth that there exists in every human heart an emptiness that only God can fully satisfy."

How many of us have felt that feeling of emptiness – just like a cold hollow pewter egg tucked right at the bottom of one's rib cage?

"The Christian fast is more than just 'giving something up for Lent,'" said Smith. "God himself tells us the type of fast pleasing to him: 'Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?'

"As we prepare for the celebration of Easter, let us fast by removing from our midst all that harms or threatens the dignity of the human person."

Hunger, poverty, homelessness, loneliness, unemployment, atheism. You know what is missing, what is needed.

Lent is that precious time of year to begin that healing, both for ourselves and our fellow humans.