China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2009/Mar

Lent, fasting and community

At the equator, the sun is up for 12 hours and below the horizon for 12 hours every day of the year. In Hong Kong, as the sun moves north, the days get longer. This shift in the hours of daylight is more extreme further north. A thousand years ago in England, the nickname for March was “the month of lengthening days.” Lengthening got shortened to Lent.

Lent and fasting

Jesus fasted for 40 days after his baptism, before he began his public ministry. In the fourth century, a 40-day period of fasting and penance before Holy Week and Easter became widespread. This was the final period of preparation for those who were to be baptised during the Easter Vigil and fasting was meant to help them prepare for that purification.

What’s good for those entering the Church is also good for long-term Catholics. Finally, rules for fasting were applied to everyone from age 14 to 59, with exceptions for the sick.

Where is the fasting of Jesus depicted in Church art? Almost nowhere. His ribs are only depicted on a crucifix. Paintings of him being tempted by the devil at the end of that long fast always depict Jesus wearing a robe. He does not look like a skeleton.

We are saved by Good Friday and Easter, not by Jesus fasting in the desert. No Christian wins admission to heaven by fasting. Spiritual directors sometimes have to order people to eat.

The current Code of Canon Law devotes only five short articles to fasting (1249-1253). Those short paragraphs define the bare minimum.

All Christians in one way or another must forego something. Yet fasting must be sincere. It cannot be separated from mercy and works of charity (c. 1249). Although alcohol is not mentioned in the letter of the law, drinking on a fast day certainly goes against the spirit. Compared to other world religions, fasting does not play a major role in Catholicism. However, we cannot ignore penance and self-sacrifice.

Fasting by Buddhists, Taoists, Confucians

There are statues of the young Buddha reduced to skin and bones, with all his ribs visible. The Buddha realised, before it was too late, that starving to death would not solve the problem of suffering because it was a violent solution. Fasting is not a shortcut to Nirvana. So he resumed eating and only after regaining some weight did he have his Enlightenment.

Abstinence has its place in Buddhism: monks must be vegetarian. Committed laypeople who avoid meat are also encouraged to fast a few days a month. Prolonged fasting should only be done under the supervision of an experienced monk.

Confucius (孔子) fasted to a certain extent. He moved into another room in his house, ate no meat, avoided many herbs and did not play music. He put aside his formal robes and wore clean linen clothes (Analects, (論語) Bk. 10, Ch. 7). Jesus gave similar advice, “When you fast, anoint your hair and wash your face” (Matthew 6:17).

Mencius (孟子) admitted that fasting helps prayer, “Even a villain can worship the higher emperor so long as he fasts.” In contrast, Isaiah 58 is a strong condemnation of the uselessness of fasting, while also cheating and exploiting people at the same time.

Isaiah links true fasting to living justly.

In Daoism, fasting cleanses the body and purifies the soul. “To learn Dao (道), the way, one must first fast.” The Yijing (易經), or Book of Changes, says the one who fasts is protected from future wrongdoing and enabled to reform. Fasting allows a person to commune with ghosts and spirits (not an option for Christians).

Fasting improves the merit of chanting the Daoist scriptures aloud. However, reading scripture absentmindedly, without faith, or with an impious heart is a waste of breath.

The Temple of Heaven (天壇) was built in Beijing in 1420. That round edifice shows heavy Daoist influence. The emperor prayed there for an abundant harvest. However, before performing that ritual at sunrise, he first spent the night in the adjacent Palace of Abstinence (齋宮).

No Chinese emperor ever died from being alone for less than 24 hours without food or alcohol. However, overindulgence sent several of them to an early grave.

With growing prosperity in China, obesity, heart disease, diabetes and alcoholism have all increased. China Bridge predicts that a few years after the current financial crisis ends and economic growth resumes, the broad masses of urban residents will need regular exercise as well as an occasional fast day.

Feast and famine

What do people eat around the world? Here’s a simple idea: ask a family to pose in front of all the food they eat and drink in one week. In most countries they cover a table with bread, rice, meat, fish, milk, cheese, fruit and vegetables. In rich countries, they add soda, cookies, beer and ice cream. A refugee family places a smaller amount on a blanket on the ground.

The Hungry Planet is a colourful book of photos showing plump or thin families from dozens of nations and their overabundant, adequate or meagre diets.

Stuffed and Starved analyses the import and export of food in the global economy. Inequality in consumption is an old story. However, a couple of years ago, for the first time in human history, more people were overweight (one billion) than undernourished (800 million). Who cannot afford enough to eat? Who suffers from too many calories? With rising unemployment, more people will go hungry before 2009 ends.

Other books document the role of advertising in promoting tasty new products. Many new snacks and convenience foods appear for a short time in the supermarket, but fail to sell and are quietly discontinued. Every bookstore has a shelf of cookbooks and another one with diet books. All of which provide food for thought during Lent.

Fasting and concupiscence

A recent study investigated dieters in the United States of America who lost weight and kept it off for a couple of months, only to regain those kilos within a year. Going up and down in weight is called “yo-yo dieting” and is bad for the heart.

Why is it difficult for people to stay slim? The scientific conclusion of the researchers is because food tastes too good.

Concupiscence comes from a Latin word which means “beginning to desire.” Because human nature is what it is after Original Sin, a variety of desires assail us. We find it hard to act rationally and resist temptation. As St. Paul said in anguish, “I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want” (Romans 7:19). Fasting is an ancient method of self-discipline, found in all cultures throughout history.

Food and community

The problem of food security is too big for one wealthy individual or family to solve. When Chinese dynasties were at their strongest and least corrupt, officials were able to supply grain to hungry provinces.

Famine relief was a key test of the legitimacy of a government. Sometimes the safety net was shredded by overwhelming demand, as in the great famine in northern China from 1877 to 1878. Since the rivers were almost dry, barges could not sail upstream, so food had to be loaded onto the backs of mules and horses.

Those beasts of burden had to be fed, thus reducing the amount of grain that reached the famine zone. About 10 million people died. Shanxi province suffered the most in that drought.

Printing presses operated by human muscle power produced woodcuts of the famine. Someone said, “It is pitiful enough to make an iron bar weep.” Individuals across China donated silver to feed the starving. Otherwise the death toll would have been even greater.

Northern China, now home to 500 million people, has just had an extremely dry winter and little rain has fallen as spring begins. Deep wells with electric or gasoline pumps lift water for irrigation and drinking.

Sacks of wheat, corn and rice are now delivered by railroad and truck, not by pack animals following rutted paths. Better transportation, combined with an efficient distribution system, makes a life-and-death difference.

In 2009, individual parishes in the drought zone are by no means rich, but local Catholics are adding to the contributions from other parts of China. There will be no surge in deaths this time, yet we should still pray for rain in due season, both in Hong Kong and in northern China.

St. Paul collected funds for the Church in Jerusalem, not to construct a church building, but to feed the poor. He praised the generosity of the Macedonian congregation in order to move the Christians in Corinth to be equally generous (2 Corinthians 8-9).

In an earlier letter, St. Paul was irate that rich Christians started the Eucharistic meal early, then ate and drank to excess. Poor Christians, servants or slaves, had chores to do before they could join the assembly and they were left with crumbs.

In the Roman Empire, the rich and powerful overate while the poor went hungry. When the Corinthian Church fell into the same selfishness, St. Paul sternly rebuked them (1 Corinthians 11:17-22).

In the early centuries, the offertory procession often included food to be shared with the poorer members of the congregation.

A few churches here and there have resumed this practice. Presenting items for the potluck supper after Mass helps build community. However, collecting food and money for a soup kitchen or local food bank is even better.

The bread of life is not meant just to make individuals feel closer to Jesus; the Eucharist does more than build up a parish. St. Thomas Aquinas (1125-1274) said, “The primary effect of the Eucharist is the unity of the Body of Christ.”

When Catholics fast from food and alcohol, or make some other sacrifice during Lent and then donate the money saved to the poor, the entire human family becomes less divided.