With two parts of it now done, I've been receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback on this homily series...with one glaring exception today. Someone (not sure if it was a parishioner or a visitor) came up to Fr. Scott after Mass this morning and said, "We should be hearing preaching on ISIS beheadings or the way Planned Parenthood sells baby parts. I didn't come to church to hear about fish and chips!" The woman's point is well taken...but the subjects are not nearly as far apart as she thinks. Fasting (like so many other traditional spiritual practices) is actually a very powerful weapon in the fight against the powers of evil at work in the world. For decades, the U.S. Catholic Bishops have advocated abstaining from meat on Fridays for the intention of peace in the world. Why not also consider a voluntary day of fasting in reparation for the sins our country's abortion industry has perpetrated against unborn children and their mothers? If more Catholics took seriously the Church's Precept on fast and abstinence, just imagine how many of Satan's wiles could be defeated, if not outright foiled from the start!
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time B
The Precepts of the Church
Lost on a rainy Friday night,
a priest stumbled upon a monastery and requested shelter there.
Fortunately, he was just in time for dinner
and was treated to the best fish and chips he’d ever tasted.
After dinner, he went to the kitchen to thank the cooks.
There he met two brothers.
“Hi,” said one, “I’m Br. Michael.”
“And I’m Br. Francis,” said the other.
“Did you enjoy your dinner?”
“To be perfectly honest,” answered the priest,
“it was the best fish and chips I’ve ever tasted.
Just out of curiosity, who cooked what?”
“Well,” Br. Michael replied, “I’m…the fish friar.”
So the priest turned to Br. Francis and said, “Then you must be…”
“Yes, I’m afraid, I’m…the chip monk.”
Most every spiritual tradition on the planet
has an established pattern of feasting and fasting.
It’s even something we see spilling over into our secular vocabulary:
our English word, “holiday,” meaning a general day for recreation,
comes from the word, “holyday,” indicating a religious festival.
This pattern of feast and fast should come as no surprise,
since it seems built right into our human nature.
If you know you’re soon going to be enjoying a big, delicious meal,
then you start eating less ahead of time in order to save some room.
Catholicism is no exception to this pattern.
Last Sunday, we examined the Precept of the Church
that speaks of feasting:
1. To attend Mass and rest from servile work
on Sundays and holy days of obligation
This Sunday, I want to talk about the Precept that addresses fasting:
2. To observe the days of fasting and abstinence from meat
established by the Church
The greatest feast on the Church’s calendar is…Easter.
(That’s why—as mentioned last Sunday—
it’s specifically during the Easter season
that all Catholics are to receive Holy Communion.)
But what comes before Easter?
The Church’s greatest fast: Lent.
Likewise, before the great feast of Christmas
we observe the season of Advent.
Once upon a time, other seasons of fasting, too,
were part of the Church’s annual cycle.
Also once upon a time,
the Church’s disciplines of fasting and abstinence
were much more rigorous than they are now.
Today, we’re required to fast just two days of Lent—
on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday;
previously, Catholics fasted for all 40 days.
Today, we’re expected to abstain from meat
only on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent;
in an earlier time,
Catholics went without meat both every day of Lent
and every Friday of the whole year.
Catholics, of course, were once known far and wide
for their distinctive habit of eating fish on Fridays.
Have you ever noticed how many restaurants
still advertize a seafood special on Friday nights?
In fact, the McDonald’s chain
started serving its Filet-O-Fish sandwich in 1962
after the owner of the Cincinnati franchises
noticed his sales dropped sharply each and every Friday.
Abstaining from meat on Fridays
was an instance of fasting before feasting in miniature:
a weekly preparation to feast on the bread of life at Sunday Mass.
We see that, too, in the Eucharistic fast.
Many Catholics today only vaguely know that,
before receiving Holy Communion,
they are supposed to fast completely from all food and drink
(except water and medicine, and unless you’re sick)
for at least one full hour.
Did you ever wonder why Catholic churches
traditionally had Mass so very early in the morning?
That’s because the Eucharistic fast used to be much longer:
all the way from midnight the night before.
That’s enough about the mechanics
of the Precept of fast and abstinence;
now let’s address why the Church commands us to do such things…
One reason is as penance.
Put plainly: we’re sinners.
We’ve failed in our love of God and neighbor.
Our souls need healing
and—as best we’re able—we need to set things right.
And so we occasionally deny ourselves a basic human need
for all those times we’ve indulged our illegitimate desires—
freely choosing to go without some good thing
because we often choose all the wrong things.
Fasting and abstinence from meat are merely external observances,
but they help us to make a much needed internal change:
in the words of St. Paul, to put away our former, deceitful desires,
to be renewed in the spirit of our minds, to put on a new self.
A second reason is to tame our passions.
We have natural human appetites not only for food and drink,
but for sleep and for companionship and intimacy.
These are—in and of themselves—all good things.
But we can, in fact, have too much of a good thing,
or turn it to selfish purposes,
or harm others in our pursuit of it.
As did those whom Jesus fed with the loaves and fish,
we can get so focused on obtaining the bread of earth
that we neglect the true bread from heaven.
To exercise mastery over any one of our appetites—
including that for food—
helps us to exercise authentic freedom in other areas of life,
and not be driven by our base desires.
A third reason is solidarity with the poor.
When it comes to food here in the U.S.,
many of us eat far too much of it and waste it far too often.
We approach it purely as consumers,
becoming forgetful that it’s God who provides.
And we take our abundance for granted.
We have enough, but—like the Israelites grumbling in the desert—
we’re still not satisfied, because it isn’t exactly what we wanted.
My friends, there are millions and millions of people—
in this country, and around the globe—
who’d be more than satisfied with the scraps from our tables.
When we fast, the money we’ve saved
can be used to help feed the hungry,
and the food we’ve gone without can help us
to enter with compassion into their everyday experience.
A fourth reason—the most important of all—
is to increase our union with Christ:
to unite our small sacrifices with his perfect one
for the salvation of the world.
The reason Catholics refrain
from eating the flesh of warm-blooded animals on Fridays
is to commemorate that Friday on which the incarnate Son of God
offered up his own flesh and blood for our sake.
Most American Catholics do not realize
that it’s still the universal law of the Church
to go meatless on Fridays—
not just during Lent, but all Fridays throughout the year.
National Bishops conferences can adapt this law,
and our Bishops have said that we can eat meat
on Fridays outside of Lent…
…as long as we substitute some other penance
or act of self-denial in its place.
We’ve tried to go back to meatless Fridays in the rectory
over the past few years—
over the past few years—
and, I must say, it changes the whole day for me
(and not just because I don't really like fish).
(and not just because I don't really like fish).
I’m certainly more conscious throughout the day
of Christ’s Passion and Cross—
the immense sacrifice he willingly made for me—
and it provides me repeated opportunities—
whether grocery shopping or out for dinner—
to give quiet witness to my Catholic faith.
Do not work for the food that perishes, Jesus says,
but the food that endures for eternal life.
Let us willingly go hungry from time to time,
that we might the more worthily eat the Bread of Life,
and so never hunger or thirst again.