Pope Benedict XVI's Lenten message focuses on Fasting
At the beginning of Lent, which constitutes an itinerary of more intense spiritual training, the Liturgy sets before us again three penitential practices that are very dear to the biblical and Christian tradition – prayer, almsgiving, fasting – to prepare us to better celebrate Easter and thus experience God’s power that, as we shall hear in the Paschal Vigil, "dispels all evil, washes guilt away, restores lost innocence, brings mourners joy, casts out hatred, brings us peace and humbles earthly pride" (Paschal Praeconium). For this year’s Lenten Message, I wish to focus my reflections especially on the value and meaning of fasting. Indeed, Lent recalls the forty days of our Lord’s fasting in the desert, which He undertook before entering into His public ministry. We read in the Gospel: "Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry" (Mt 4,1-2). Like Moses, who fasted before receiving the tablets of the Law (cf. Ex 34,28) and Elijah’s fast before meeting the Lord on Mount Horeb (cf. 1 Kings 19,8), Jesus, too, through prayer and fasting, prepared Himself for the mission that lay before Him, marked at the start by a serious battle with the tempter.
We might wonder what value and meaning there is for us Christians in depriving ourselves of something that in itself is good and useful for our bodily sustenance. The Sacred Scriptures and the entire Christian tradition teach that fasting is a great help to avoid sin and all that leads to it. For this reason, the history of salvation is replete with occasions that invite fasting. In the very first pages of Sacred Scripture, the Lord commands man to abstain from partaking of the prohibited fruit: "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die" (Gn 2, 16-17). Commenting on the divine injunction, Saint Basil observes that "fasting was ordained in Paradise," and "the first commandment in this sense was delivered to Adam." He thus concludes: " ‘You shall not eat’ is a law of fasting and abstinence" (cf. Sermo de jejunio: PG 31, 163, 98)...
You can read the full message on the Vatican web site.
Interestingly, today while working on the blog I do for work, I came across an article on fasting in the Los Angeles Times. In the article "Running on empty: the pros and cons of fasting", the author, while mentioning the support for fasting in "various religious and cultural practices around the globe", dwells on the possible scientific evidence for fasting's physical benefits. Pope Benedict refers to this theme in his Lenten message, noting that, "in a culture characterized by the search for material well-being, a therapeutic value for the care of one’s body," fasting is looked at primarily for its physical value.
But for Christians, the primary focus must remain on the spiritual aspect of fasting. The fathers of the Church noted that almsgiving and fasting are the twin wings of prayer. Pope Benedict refers to Pope Paul VI's Constitution on Penance Paenitemini, in which the earlier Pope taught:
"in our time there are special reasons whereby, according to the demands of various localities, it is necessary to inculcate some special form of penitence in preference to others.(60) Therefore, where economic well-being is greater, so much more will the witness of asceticism have to be given in order that the sons of the Church may not be involved in the spirit of the "world,"(61) and at the same time the witness of charity will have to be given to the brethren who suffer poverty and hunger beyond any barrier of nation or continent."
Interestingly, of course, there is probably less fasting in the richer nations; yet that is precisely whom Pope Paul VI singled out to be first in such disciplines.