Friday, February 19, 2021

Fasting and the Orations of the First Sunday of Lent

Félix Joseph Barrias, The Temptation of Christ by the Devil, 1860
Lost in Translation #39

The greatest difference between the seasons of Lent in the 1962 and 1969 calendars is on the subject of fasting. The 1962 calendar presupposes that the faithful will be keeping the ancient forty-day Lenten fast, and orders its prayers and readings accordingly. One can even go so far as to say that the Lenten propers in the old Missal are geared towards the sanctification of the person through fasting and abstinence. The 1969 Missal, on the other hand, was issued in the wake of Pope Paul VI’s 1966 Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini, which made the Lenten fast optional. Whereas the old Missal mentions, explains, and prays for the practice of fasting on every day of Lent prior to Holy Week (the traditional rite’s Preface for Lent, which is used daily from Ash Wednesday until Passiontide, is supplemented almost daily with additional references to fasting in the proper prayers), the new Missal has only three occasions with required references to the fasting of the faithful: Ash Wednesday (one of the two remaining mandatory fast days of the year), the Collect for the Third Sunday of Lent, and the Prayer over the Offerings for Saturday in the Fifth Week of Lent. The traditional Preface for Lent was retained in the new Missal as Preface IV of the season, but made optional; the new Mass’s First Sunday of Lent refers to Christ’s fast in the desert, but there is no indication that the the faithful should follow His example. As a whole, the new Missal offers little guidance on fasting and almost no prayers for its success.

The orations for the First Sunday of Lent in the 1962 Missal, on the other hand, both pray for a successful fast and explain why the practice is important. The Collect is:
Deus, qui Ecclesiam tuam ánnua quadragesimáli observatióne puríficas: praesta famíliae tuae: ut, quod a te obtinére abstinendo nítitur, hoc bonis opéribus exsequátur. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
O God, who dost purify Thy Church by the yearly observance of Lent: grant to Thy household that what it strives to obtain from Thee by abstaining, it may secure by good works. Through our Lord.
Some Church Fathers claimed that the Great Fast of Lent was begun by the Apostles, but even if it is a third- or fourth-century invention, the Collect claims that it is God who uses this season of fasting to purify His Church. Religious fasting is different from medical fasting or what we might be tempted to call cosmetic fasting (dieting for the sake of looking good). Its goal is to purify the soul, but the soul cannot purify itself (sorry, Pelagius). Successful religious fasting depends entirely on God’s grace. Similarly, the Postcommunion Prayer of the day prays for a purification “from the old.”
The Collect then petitions God to obtain by good works what cannot be obtained by abstaining. The Collect does not stipulate what exactly the household of God is trying to obtain by either abstinence or good works, but the Postcommunion does: fellowship in the mystery of salvation. The operative logic is similar but not identical to “out with the bad, in with the good” -- the food from which we abstain is not bad, although the activity of abstaining is designed to correct an unhealthy attachment to food. The Secret puts it nicely: “refraining from flesh at our meals” helps us “refrain from harmful pleasures.” And once we have rid ourselves of harmful or vicious pleasures, we should fill the vacuum with the good. One is reminded of the upcoming Gospel for the Third Sunday of Lent (Luke 11, 14-28), which speaks of the unclean spirit who, after being exorcized, returns to a clean but empty house with seven of his fiendish friends. Fill the house with good things, in other words, before the bad returns.
Fasting, then, is an important activity, but it is not a cure-all. Our Lord mentions that some demons can only be exorcized by fasting and prayer (Matt. 17, 21); the two must go together. In the Collect, good works supplement the shortcomings of fasting or abstinence. And good works are supposed to be an integral part of Lent. Several Church Fathers taught that the money saved by fasting should go to the less fortunate. As Pope Saint Leo the Great put it: “May the abstinence of the fasters be the refreshment of the poor.” (Sermon 13)  Or in the words of the beautiful Maronite liturgy: 
How splendid is fasting that is adorned with charity. Break your bread generously with one who is hungry; otherwise yours is not fasting but saving! (Vespers of Tuesday in Lent) 
Today’s Gospel tells us that “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert, to be tempted by the devil” for forty days and forty nights (Matthew 4, 1). Let us, then, follow the Spirit of the liturgy into the desert and confront our demons through fasting, prayer, and good works.

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