Advent seems to most of us to be a time of joyful anticipation. Christmas presents are being purchased and wrapped, wreaths hung, trees decorated. It’s definitely a time of getting ready: getting ready for travel, for receiving friends and family, for parties and potlucks and oh, yes, for the miracle of Christmas. We’re all aware of how the “reason for the season” can get lost in all the other activities, concerns, and stresses that accompany it. I’d like to suggest one activity that, this Advent, might help to keep you more focused.
I’d like to suggest fasting.
Despite its liturgical color, Advent is not considered a penitential season by the Catholic Church, so there is no requirement for fasting enjoined upon the faithful. This wasn’t always the case. In the medieval Church, Advent was every bit as strict as Lent. St. Martin’s feast day was a day of carnival (the word comes from carnis and vale, which means “farewell to meat”). In those days, the rose vestments of Gaudete (Rejoice Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent) were really something to rejoice about, since the fast was relaxed for a day. We’ve left those customs behind: the worst penances of Advent, these days, seem to be standing in line at the shopping mall.
Perhaps it is precisely in the way the secular world “does” Advent that makes this season such an appropriate one for fasting.
Fasting, more than any other discipline, does not let you forget for one moment what it is you’re doing. You’re hungry. You feel deprived. Your body is reminding you something is different, uncomfortable. That discomfort gives you focus: What better way is there to balance the excessive consumerism through which the world around you celebrates the season than with a constant reminder of what it is that we as Catholics are about now: the anticipation of the coming of the Lord?
What is fasting?
In a sense, fasting isn’t about food itself as much as it’s about abstinence; you could, theoretically, fast from something other than food. And in fact the discipline of fasting doesn’t say consuming the food of our choice is bad—quite the contrary. Abstinence is the act of voluntarily giving up something that is good.
It’s enabling the spirit to focus.
So why choose food? Well, have you noticed how you feel after a large meal? Sleepy, possibly uncomfortable, lethargic, distracted. Notice that these are all feelings that go against the spirit of Advent. Advent is a time of anticipation and watching, of preparing yourself spiritually, of holding your breath with the longing of centuries, waiting for the Messiah to arrive. You cannot wait and watch if you’re replete from a large meal.
Fasting doesn’t need to mean abstaining from all food; though Jesus fasted in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights, most of us would die with nothing. God wants us to survive! Fasting does mean, however, abstaining from enough to allow you to keep coming back to the discomfort, and—through it—to the reason for the discomfort. It keeps you coming back to God.
Have you heard the expression “give until it hurts”? Fasting is very much like that: give up until it hurts. Literally. Feel the hunger. Feel the discomfort. And feel the spiritual longing for the Son of God singing in your body and in your heart and in your soul.
How to fast
There are many different ways to fast, and a good place to begin is by asking God for discernment: what kind of fast are you being called to this Advent? The Bible gives examples of one-day, three-day, seven-day and forty-day fasts. But you’re not required to follow any of those: you can fast on Fridays, on Wednesdays and Fridays, or (in a modified way) every day.
Some people abstain from food altogether for short periods of time. Others give up one or two meals a day. Some prefer to give up something they love (chocolate, for example, or alcohol, or even television) while still having regular meals.
So what do you do instead of eating?
Use the energy of fasting. That may sound counterintuitive: it’s food that gives our bodies energy, so how can we be energized by fasting? Yet time and time again, in various religious traditions, people report fasting brings them clarity of mind. An experiment at the University of Chicago showed an increase in mental alertness and better schoolwork performance when participants were fasting. So take advantage of that clarity and focus to open yourself up to new ways of being with God.
You spend time preparing and consuming the meals you’re giving up. Use the gift of time the discipline has given you in spiritually constructive ways. You might want to spend that time in Eucharistic Adoration or other prayer; in reading Scripture; in organizing an Advent discussion group.
You also spent money on the food you’re not consuming anymore. That money could well be spent this Advent on those people less fortunate than you: donating it to a local food bank or soup kitchen will help you address the needs of those for whom fasting is not optional, for whom the feeling of hunger is all too familiar.
Fasting and Advent
You are not just abstaining from food in preparation for the coming of the Messiah; you are also echoing and remembering the centuries of longing as God’s people waited for his coming. At some point during the season you’ll be singing the haunting O Come O Come Emmanuel: “…and ransom captive Israel/that mourns in lonely exile here.” We were indeed wandering a barren wilderness before the Good News of Christ was revealed to us.
How do you feel that mourning? That sense of exile?
Fasting and Advent both remind us of that journey, the journey from darkness into light, from wandering into finding our home, from law into love. The longing of our bodies for food echoes the longing of our souls for the coming of the Savior. What more fitting way to live it out in our lives during this Advent season than through a fast?
by Jeannette de Beauvoir