Every year, the liturgy of Lent invites us to follow the three fundamental paths to live during this season: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. These paths are not just a preparation for Easter but are in themselves already a fruit of the light and joy of the Resurrection, because they are the paths through which we become like Jesus. He makes our hearts capable of authentic love, of a profound unity of faith and charity.
The Church proposes this time as a journey of penance because it has at its heart our fulfillment. Christianity isn’t a religion of pain but the journey towards Easter, a journey in the light of Easter. To enter into the Resurrection, to enter into life requires purifying our gaze and our hearts from all that impedes us from tasting and seeing what has been prepared for us, freeing us from all that prevents us from being just. The just man is the one who lives an authentic relationship with himself, with others, and with God. The paths that the Church offers us during Lent are, therefore, the paths of justice: justice towards God (prayer), justice towards oneself (fasting), and towards others (almsgiving).
Let’s attempt to enter into the meaning of these three paths. There is a profound educative aspect in the order in which Matthew the evangelist lists these words in Jesus’ sermon: first almsgiving, then prayer, and, finally, fasting (cf. Mt 6:1-18).
Almsgiving, while restoring justice among men, also teaches us that everything belongs to God and frees us from the weight of an excessive attachment to our possessions.
The Gospel speaks first of poverty and then of prayer because the former is the condition of the latter: without poverty, without slackening the chains that enslave us to material things, there can be no prayer. If our hearts are too preoccupied by the world, there is no space for dialogue with God. In this dialogue, man discovers that which he really needs. The point of prayer, in fact, isn’t to remind God of our needs. God knows perfectly well what we need; it is we who don’t know what we need, and for this we must enter into the gaze of the God who created us and loves us. To begin to pray means to enter into the action of God in us: elevatio mentis in Deum. Only in this way can we recognize our needs. “When you pray, say ‘Father’”, Jesus told us (Lk 11:2). This is the deepest reason for prayer: learning that we are children of God.
This is also the ultimate meaning of the Christian fasting that the Church asks of us. “Man does not live by bread alone but of his relationship with the Father” (cf. Mt 4:4, Lk 4:4). Tradition has always linked fasting with the necessity to give time and space to prayer. It is necessary that our bodies don’t become weighed down. “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life” (cf. Lk 21:34). Fasting, therefore, isn’t born from scorn, neither of material things nor the body. On the contrary, it is necessary for the well-being of the body in light of a just relationship with oneself and with God.
To those who admonished Jesus for the fact that his disciples didn’t fast, He responded that they couldn’t do so while the Bridegroom was with them. Christian fasting, as the Orthodox theologian Olivier Clèment expressed well, is like waiting for the Bridegroom: it “puts man in a condition to live out in himself the hunger experienced by all of creation that only the Spirit can satisfy.”
Antonio Vivarini, «Polittico della passione», partic. «Preghiera nel Getsemani», 1430-1435