On February 6, the holy fast of Lent will begin. It is and has been since the 3rd century a time of self denial for Christians, a kind of intentional imitation of our Lord Jesus' forty day fast in the desert after His Baptism in the Jordan before the beginning of His public ministry. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving have been there privileged ways of entering into Christ's desert experience. While prayer and almsgiving have their own challenges, Catholics today seem to have the most difficulty understanding the nature and purpose of fasting. There was a time when Catholic penitential practices, Lenten or otherwise, were, by our standards, quite severe. Before the liturgical reforms in the late sixties, every Friday of the year was a day of abstinence. One could not eat or drink anything from midnight onwards before receiving Holy Communion. During Lent, every day was fast day. Abstinence from meat was required on Ash Wednesday, Fridays and Saturdays. On other days, it was permissible to have meat only once a day. Our present discipline, prescribes abstinence from meat of Fridays throughout the year or some other suitable penance (praying the Stations of the Cross, for example). On Ash Wednesday and Fridays in Lent we are to abstain from meat. We fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. While the present discipline is a significant relaxation of the former, it is important to note that there is nothing that stops us from keeping the older discipline. We might ask, quite reasonably, "What does any of this have to do with Jesus? Did not Jesus come to preach universal love, joy and brotherhood? Doesn't focusing on rules make us like the Pharisees?" One of the central themes of Jesus' preaching was, "Repent! The Kingdom of God is at hand." Repentance is necessary for us if we are to receive the Kingdom of God because we have attached ourselves to the wrong things. Our sins and selfish auto-fixations have filled up the place in our souls that should be open to receive God into our lives. Fasting is a bodily way of saying to God that we need His help in setting things right. Far from categorically discouraging fasting, Jesus commanded it, provided it was done in a spirit of humility: "When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Mt. 6:17-18). In light of Jesus' teaching, we should not be surprised that fasting was a common phenomenon in apostolic times. Before Paul and Barnabas were dispatched on their first mission from Antioch, members of the Church there fasted and kept vigil (Acts 13:1-3). It was standard operating procedure for Christians to fast and spend extended time in prayer before the ordination of priests and bishops in their local community (Acts 14:21-23). Until the liturgical reform, the Church calendar even set aside several fasting days every year for ordinations, known as ember days. This ancient form of prayer teaches how to set our hearts on heaven and helps us grow in self-knowledge. We deny ourselves of the bodily comfort of a full stomach in order to remind ourselves that material things cannot satisfy our spiritual hunger. When done with the proper interior dispositions, fasting helps us to taste interiorly how God alone fulfills our deepest longings for happiness and perfect love. In age of microwave dinners and fast food, fasting is difficult. Our attempts at fasting show us just little self-control we have and how much we need to trust in God's grace if we are to be authentic Christian disciples. Through your practice of fasting, may this season of holy penance be filled with the peace of Christ!