Lent: Why the Christian Must Deny Himself | Brother Austin G. Murphy, O.S.B. | IgnatiusInsight.com
We still ask ourselves as Ash Wednesday approaches, "What am I doing for Lent? What am I giving up for Lent?" We can be grateful that the customs of giving up something for Lent and abstaining from meat on Fridays during Lent have survived in our secular society. But, unfortunately, it is doubtful that many practice them with understanding. Many perform them in good faith and with a vague sense of their value, and this is commendable. But if these acts of self-denial were better understood, they could be practiced with greater profit. Otherwise, they run the risk of falling out of use.
A greater understanding of the practice of self-denial would naturally benefit those who customarily exercise it during Lent. Better comprehension of self-denial would also positively affect the way Christians live throughout the year. The importance of self-denial can be seen if we look specifically at fasting and use it as an example of self-denial in general. Indeed, fasting, for those who can practice it, is a crucial part of voluntary self-denial.
But since we live in a consumerist society, where self-indulgence rather than self-denial is the rule, any suggestion to fast will sound strange to many ears. It is bound to arouse the questions: Why is fasting important? Why must a Christian practice it? Using these questions as a framework, we can construct one explanation, among many possible ones, of the importance of self-denial.
To answer the question "Why must the Christian fast?" we should first note that fasting, in itself, is neither good nor bad, but is morally neutral. But fasting is good insofar as it achieves a good end. Its value lies in it being an effective means for attaining greater virtue. And because it is a means for gaining virtue– and every Christian ought to be striving to grow in virtue–there is good reason to fast.
Some people point out that fasting is not the most important thing and, therefore, they do not need to worry about it. Such reasoning displays a misunderstanding of our situation. But, since the excuse is common enough, some comments to refute it are worthwhile.
Doing Small Things Well
First, while it is true that fasting is not the most important thing in the world, this does not make fasting irrelevant or unimportant. There are, certainly, more urgent things to abstain from than food or drink, such as maliciousness, backbiting, grumbling, etc. But a person is mistaken to conclude that he therefore does not need to fast. He should not believe that he can ignore fasting and instead abstain in more important matters. Rather, fasting and avoiding those other vices go hand in hand. Fasting must accompany efforts to abstain in greater matters. For one thing, fasting teaches a person how to abstain in the first place.