I always dread the lead up to the annual ‘What are you giving up for Lent?’ question. In school when the teacher would give out assignments, I’d be that guy that would always pick the option to make up my own topic for an assignment. So when Lent comes around I’m tying myself in knots trying to work out what’s original and interesting to give up. Like in high school I gave up listening to music for Lent, to the point where I went to the school dance with earplugs and these huge ear muffs on. Looking back, that sounds a lot like what Jesus was probably talking about; “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting.” Matthew 6:16-17
Reading what Pope Francis has been saying about Lent recently (check it out if you haven’t already), I think it’s becoming clearer to me that pain while fasting – hunger pains, temptation pains, boredom pains –aren’t an end in itself. If they don’t lead us to learning what to love more, and how to love more, than they aren’t really achieving their intended goal.
Pope Francis quoted this; “No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.” I think its clear Pope Francis has a strong picture of the difference between a good and a great fast.
“Pain while fasting isn’t an end in itself.”
So on this journey towards Easter, let’s make our fasting not just be good, but great – by turning our pain into mercy for others, our discomfort into kindness toward others, and our temptations into steadfastness.
I wish I knew as a teenager that it’s not about originality or ‘impressing everyone with how much suffering I must be going through’, but about the outcome. Every day we give up something during Lent, there is a particular fruit of that fast – drawing closer to God, becoming more humble, sinking deeper into scripture, or acting with a heart of mercy. It’s simply up to us to recognise the fruit and act on it as best we can.