What we eat and do not eat often has roots and implications in many areas of our lives. This is why fasting is much more than a question of limiting our intake of food. We might consider the illness anorexia, for example, as fasting taken to extremes. Some experts suggest that anorexia stems from a lack of control in some other part of the person’s life. People who are anorexic may believe that controlling what comes into their mouths is the only control they can ever have over events and circumstances. Such actions invariably lead to suffering and even death.
Our Lenten fasting is in no danger of reaching such extremes. I am sure many people find ways to cut corners in their Lenten practices. A pork pie at midnight on Fridays in Lent is probably not that uncommon. But these are signs that our fasting is, in its own way, also going nowhere. Thinking only of food when we consider our Lenten practices can actually put us on the wrong road. Fasting and abstinence can easily become meaningless exercises in masochism.
In today’s Gospel, Our Lord asks the people to take up their cross daily, but a crucial line follows that invitation. Our Lord goes on to invite people to follow him. Fasting and abstinence are not meant to be roads leading us nowhere; their purpose is to put us on the road to Christ. Fasting and abstinence are meant to remind us of things that are really important. Do we live to eat or do we eat to live? Just who or what are we living for? Whatever takes our eyes away from God is taking us down the wrong path.
For the people in the first reading, the question was clear: choose death, live on your own, think you are controlling your own destinies, or choose real life and live for God, who is the only One truly in control. Our Lord’s invitation to follow him is a call to look to him as our guide and leave everything else behind. That makes much more sense than simply going hungry to go nowhere.