Vol I No. 7

Thomas Aquinas on Lent I

by William J. Martin

When He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He was afterward an hungered. (Matt. iv. 2.)

I. AUGUSTINE says that it is the highest religion to imitate what we worship, so that, when Our Lord fasted, we ought to imitate Him in fasting.

We worship God Almighty. We worship the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. We worship the Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ. Worship unites us to the object of worshiping. Our object is Jesus Christ because He is the Way to the Father. Through Him, we worship. Thus through Him, we learn to find our reconciliation with God.

1. On the first head it is to be noted, that the Lord commanded us to fast in a fourfold manner (1) By Himself, to Adam and Eve in Paradise, when He commanded that they

should fast i.e., abstain from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and eat it not.

Fasting and Abstinence are enjoined upon man by God at the beginning. Man is not made to know and experience evil. His nature is not equipped to conquer the one and embrace the other. When He tries ‘to be as God’, he dares to tempt fate and to digest both good and evil. Evil is nothingness, objectively speaking. But it is ‘nothingness’ only to God. God alone can treat it as such. Man cannot endure it. The best that man can do is to obey God, open up to His Grace, and remain satisfied with not knowing evil. If man tempts God by trying to digest both good and evil, he is forever caught between the two. Each becomes a false god.

2. He commanded it by the Law of Moses It shall be a Sabbath of rest unto you, and ye shall afflict your souls by a statute forever. (Lev. xvi. 31)

Fasting is enjoined by God. Moses hears the Word of God and obeys it. In the post-fallen Jewish world, the Sabbath is given to man so that he might return to God in contemplation on a regular basis. Fasting is essential to the soul’s vision of God, fear of the Lord, and obedience. Fasting tames the body to serve the soul and tames the soul to serve the spirit. Thus man is made right with God.

3. God commanded it by the Prophets: Sanctify a fast. (Joel ii. 15)  (4) God commanded it by the Apostles: In hunger and thirst, in fastings often, (2 Cor. xi. 27) whence he is a manifest transgressor of the precepts of grace who is unwilling to fast.

Fasting is commanded by the Prophets and the Apostles. God commands them to command us. Fasting is sometimes self-imposed by following them and sometimes the effect of other men’s meanness. In either case, we embrace it gladly in order to find our utter and absolute dependence upon God. 

On the second head it is to be noted, that Our Lord taught us that there were four things necessary in fasting.

(1) That we should be cleansed from all sin.

When we fast we study our lives and discover our sins. Then we confess, express sorrow, and desire to be filled with the virtue that will overcome our sins.

(2) That we should conceal our fasting from the applause of men.

Fasting is a private affair. We ought to fast in secret before our Heavenly Father. Then, He shall reward us openly. The intimate relationship that we can expect from our God gives us a spiritual reward for our labors. Applause of men is needed by those who are not content with God’s approval and assistance.

(3) That we should fast with long-suffering and perseverance.

We must be patient. God will not heal of our sins immediately. We must commit to a long term pilgrimage after His mercy. We must be determined to persevere while accepting His counsel and prescriptions for our sinful state.

(4) That we should overcome the temptations of the Devil.

Fasting is really all about saying ‘no’ to Satan and the ways in which he rules and governs us.

As Christ fasted when He was baptized, so also he who wishes to fast well ought first to be cleansed by penitence and confession: But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head and wash thy face. (St. Matt. vi. 17)

We need not appear unto men to fast since their response is, at best, of secondary importance. Christ was anointed before He fasted. We ought also to anoint our heads and wash our faces prior to our fasting.

As Christ sought the desert when about to fast, He showed to us that when we fast and do good works we must hide ourselves.from the praises of men: When ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance that thou appear not unto men to fast. (St. Matt. vi. 16)

Only insecure and immature Christians need to find their approval amongst men. What we must see is that our fasting is an adult custom which brings us into the presence of God’s saving power. We need to be right with God.

As Christ fasted forty days and forty nights, so should we: Subdue your flesh with abstinence from meat and drink as far as your health will permit. (St. Augustine)

The soul cannot come to see God’s wisdom and will clearly until the body is sufficiently subdued to the soul and the soul to the spirit. Fasting enables us to come to have a clearer vision of God’s truth and how that truth ought to be embraced in our heart.

As Christ did not give way to the temptation of the Devil, so too must we resist the Devil: Man shall not live by bread alone Get thee hence, Satan (Idem); Son, when thou comest to the service of God prepare thy soul for temptation. (Ecclus. ii. 1)

Temptation is necessary for us so that we might reject evil and cleave to the good. Christ Himself welcomes us into His temptations. He urges us to participate in the three-fold testing of Satan and to overcome the evil one through a deep desire to cleave to God’s wisdom and love. When we are called into God’s service, we shall be tempted. We want to be strengthened by God’s Grace. To do so, we must be fasting and praying.

Dear Brethren, in this Holy Season of Lent, let us go into the wilderness to fast and to pray. Let us ask the Lord to give us a clearer vision of ourselves in relation to Him. Let us confess our sins and be truly sorrowful over them. Let us desire to embrace Christ’s victory over them. Amen.