The Esteem of Fasting

With yesterday’s ashes washed from our foreheads, we now undertake the Lenten experience that includes the annual custom of “giving something up.” This practice is an expression of the ancient practice of fasting.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus was upset that the hypocrites were fasting in order to be noticed. They wanted to win the esteem of others. Nothing could be further from what is needed. Instead of fasting to win the esteem of others, our fasting is meant to esteem others, especially the poor, the countless women, men, and children who are under-esteemed, often forgotten, neglected, and unnoticed.

As Pope Francis has riveted our attention to the plight of refugees, this Lent offers a timely opportunity to esteem those who are fleeing their countries to seek safety, economic justice, or freedom from their oppressors. Catholic Relief Services, popularly known as CRS, is the arm of the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference that helps the poor overseas. Begun in 1943 to aid Europe’s refugees during the plight of World War II, the CRS mission has grown to provide care for and affirm the dignity of our neighbors abroad who struggle with the most basic human needs. From food and water to rescue and resettlement, the work of this agency provides the face and hands of Jesus to the least of his brothers and sisters, as we read in Matthew 25.

The CRS Rice Bowl project is a popular way to transform our fasting into funds for the poor in zones of the world we may never visit, but are called to remember in our prayer. Our grumbling stomachs may remind us of the empty bellies of people far away. Whether we actually fold the cardboard container or simply offer a donation from our Lenten fasting and almsgiving, we enter into solidarity with those who need our attention, affection, and esteem. Amid the politicization of the refugee crisis, we can never forget that real people—moms, dads, and their children—are not able to wait for national issues to be debated among leaders and media pundits. These hungry and nationless people are just waiting for a reason to hope.

May our Lenten fasting lift our hearts to greater care and authentic love for those whom Jesus called our brothers and sisters.