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Fasting Forward

March 1, 2010:

Catholics are in the midst of the liturgical season of Lent, a time of renewal, remembrance, and repentance. Lent is marked by a threefold discipline of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The aspect of fasting became a key way the season was identified. From the tradition we find Lent referred to as the “sacred fast,” though the obligations of fasting and abstinence from meat for Roman Catholics are far less strict than in ages past, than the rigors of Ramadan celebrated by our Muslim sisters and brothers, or the obligations observed by some of the Eastern Christian Churches. While we may be “fasting” from some special treat we have given up as a sign of our Lenten discipline, perhaps this naming of Lent as the sacred fast might inspire us to think more deeply about our relationship to food today and the future of our food systems.

The figures for hunger or risk of hunger in the United States in the past few years are staggering: “More than 49 million people—including 16.7 million children—live in households that experience hunger or risk of hunger.” When we look worldwide, the estimate is that there are 1.02 billion undernourished people in the world. According to the World Food Programme’s calculations, “one in nearly six people do not get enough food to be healthy and lead and active life.” The link between chronic undernourishment and hunger and poverty is clearly documented. Moreover, the increase in obesity, diabetes, etc.—while certainly complex in their development in different contexts—have been linked in certain cases to a dependence on cheap, processed foods and lack of access to fresh, healthy food. From the supersized burger to other ‘portion distortions,’ people in the United States, for example, have nearly doubled their amount of meat consumption since 1950. There is evidence of increases in meat consumption in China and India as well.

Perhaps this sacred fast of Lent can offer a time to pause to consider the environmental fallout and the implications of the way we eat both for our health and for the breakdown of the national and global food systems that leave so many hungry or malnourished. The Christian tradition has always kept together the practices of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving—a holistic triad that shapes us and rehearses for just living in the world. Body and spirit, self and others are seen in an integrated way. The sacred fast of Lent might help us practice some new attitudes and patterns of eating that take into account the lives of others and our planet.

Fasting calls attention to our patterns of consumption. Fasting can also turn our reflection to where the food comes from that we eat. Who planted, nurtured, and picked the food we are eating? How was it grown? How far did it travel to get to our table? Perhaps our Lenten discipline might help us look at questions of migrant farm labor, sustainable agriculture, humane farming. Are we conscious of the amount of processing and packaging of what we eat? Do we really need that commercially grown tomato wrapped in plastic on Styrofoam from Florida in our salad in the middle of February in Chicago? Can we think expansively about how we might—even in small ways—recover a connection of farm, food, and table? Or perhaps we might adapt for ourselves a simple rule from Michael Pollan, “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don't.”

In his Hymns on Fasting, St Ephraem the Syrian, exalts fasting as an occasion for delight and enlightenment, because we can see how much we have grown and can see God and our neighbor more clearly. “Fasting is bright and beautiful,” he sings. It allows us to clarify our hearts and minds. Perhaps the rest of this season of Lent can offer us a chance to look more clearly at how some of the choices we might make in terms of what we eat can move us forward in even little ways to a more active response to a growing global health and food dilemma.


Richard E. McCarron is associate professor of liturgy at Catholic Theological Union.