Sunday, February 15, 2009

Fasting vs. Loving One's Neighbor

I once ate chicken pot pie on Good Friday. It was the day I got home from the hospital after the birth of my first child. My very kind non-Catholic neighbor made us a welcome home dinner. I did a quick mental appraisal of the situation. I could either stick with the Good Friday rules on abstinence and offend my neighbor, or I could eat the meal graciously and demonstrate my appreciation for her thoughtfulness. I chose the second course of action.

The rules of the Church on Lenten fasting and abstinence are good. We all do have an obligation to sacrifice. It shows our solidarity with others of our faith and also helps us on our spiritual journey. Yet, they come second to the primary law of Christian life – to love God and to love our neighbor. There are times, such as the instance I just related, when the two do come into conflict. In that case, the choice is clear. Fasting will gain us little spiritual merit if we offend our neighbor in the process.

In the second reading for this past Sunday, 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1, St. Paul is addressing the opposite issue, but the result is the same. He instructs the Christians that they have no reason to abstain from any food, but if they are sharing a meal with their Jewish brethren and the food offends them, they should refrain from eating it out of love for their neighbor. “Never be a cause of offense.” There is a difference between going out to a restaurant and ordering an appropriate Lenten meal and going to someone's house and refusing to eat what they have prepared. The first is a witness to our Catholic faith (although it need not be announced); the second is rude and is likely to cause ill-feeling toward the Catholic tradition.

Many people, myself included, observe a personal fast of some type on Wednesdays and/or Fridays throughout the year. Perhaps one refrains from meat or from desserts. The same guidelines should apply. Sometimes, if one is with a large group, it is possible to adhere to one's sacrifice without offending anyone. In a crowd of fifty people, no one is likely to care if you take a piece of cake or not unless you happen to be the guest of honor. In a small group, it is much more obvious. It is possible to enjoy parties and still sacrifice. If I know, for example, that I have some social obligation where I will be expected to enjoy a lavish meal and dessert, I adjust my fasting days accordingly in advance. If I find myself in a spur-of-the-moment celebration, I simply resolve to fast the next day instead. Indeed, sometimes this is harder – fasting on Saturday always seems more of a challenge than sacrificing on Friday. There is also the possibility of making some other sacrifice on Wednesday or Friday, perhaps to avoid media, for example.

Fasting and sacrifice are important parts of a Catholic life and can bring many benefits to both body and soul. Forgoing it should never be done lightly. However, it need always be subjugated to the need to love one another. Sometimes, the greater sacrifice is to fast from fasting.

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