What is the point of fasting? In short, and you no doubt know by now, that it is to starve. To deprive yourself of something.
At times, we look for some great truth beyond the mundane and thoroughly unenjoyable act of fasting. But truly, in order to see that kind of truth, we cannot ignore the singular, brute fact: we are starving. And yet, as soon as we bring this unromantic aspect to our eyes, it unfolds into the very love of God. To see the humblest part of fasting is to enter—to our great surprise— into its transcendent grandeur.
Furthermore, we see points in the lives of the saints where they too starved; we think now of Elijah, and of Christ himself, roaming in the wilderness, hungry for even the smallest morsel of bread.
We see too the hungry masses following Christ up onto a distant hillside, eager to receive the smallest touch of his calloused carpenter’s palms through which divine healing has so astoundingly passed. For the horde of the hungry, Christ is moved to compassion. In a sense, the roughness of those hands and the roughness of the bodily experience of fasting seem to mercifully embrace one another; we feel now that we are starving, but no longer alone.
It is bodily hunger which reminds us of our inner hunger for Christ himself, the bread of Life. And He, in our fasting, is brought up from the unexamined depths of our souls to the fore of our attention. We see him there, residing in our souls, suffering along with us because he truly is the Infinite Love of God. As St. Augustine says, Christ is “closer to me than I am to myself.” His is a love that suffers with us and in whose suffering and love we are found to be participating in. Why do we fast? To bring the very same mercy of Christ to the very surface of our being—to the palms of our hands.
He is the very definition of compassion (from sumpascho, meaning “to suffer with”). This is most fully seen in his Incarnation. God Ever Greater came down humbly to us as a man to die for us (Phil. 2:5-11), and this we are called to imitate to others. Why do we fast? To become humble.
God, being infinitely other from us, loves us because we are His own. And so we do the same to others. God, being infinitely greater than us, loves us in such a way as to even put us before Himself (Rom. 8:32; John 3:16). And so, we do the same.
The unbelieving, the unrepentant, the disillusioned, the poor, the broken, hurting and the foolish are all starving. And so, we suffer alongside the world. So why do we fast? That we ourselves would become the love of God for others through Christ.