The fact that there are forty days of Lent and fifty days of Easter proclaims a very important message about the Christian life. Disciplining our senses is important, but the goal of true fasting is not to crush our senses; it’s to liberate them for true feasting. We fast, first of all, the Catechism says, to “prepare us for the liturgical feasts” (CCC 2043). And the fifty days of Easter present the grandest feast of them all!
We need to discipline our senses because, as Saint John Paul II put it, we experience within our bodies “a force that often undermines man” and our senses are “often urged or pushed, as it were, toward evil” (TOB 72:4). Such discipline “requires a special interior, spiritual effort,” he says elsewhere, “but this effort is above all positive and creative … not negative and destructive” (Love and Responsibility, p. 171). It’s like the discipline of a musician or an athlete: it leads to great victories and great beauty.
The fifty days of Easter is the time to celebrate these great victories and great beauties with particular joy and intensity. Easter convinces us that the “senses are not to be discarded,” as Pope Benedict XVI insists. Rather, through the gift of redemption, “they should be expanded to their widest capacity.”
We see this in Christ himself. Jesus thoroughly enjoyed good food and good wine. How do we know? Why else would he have been accused of being a “drunkard and a glutton” (Lk 7:34)? Those blinded by their own suspicions toward the senses and the physical world projected vice on to Christ’s virtue. They couldn’t imagine anything else in someone who took such delight in created pleasures. As Caryll Houselander put it, “No man ever enjoyed life as he did. He gathered up the color, sound, touch, meaning of everything about him and united it all to the most exquisite sensitiveness, the most pure capacity for delight” (Reed of God, p. 101).
Those who faithfully follow Jesus through the fasting of Lent and the agonies of Holy Week also come into the joy of his resurrection and begin to taste something of Christ’s own “pure capacity for delight.” They come to an exquisite appreciation of all the rich and varied icons in the created world – without making idols of them.
This is the rich harvest we reap through a life of proper fasting. Asceticism is not the end, but the means. A life of proper fasting bears fruit in a life of proper feasting.
Many years ago I heard a story on a tape series about the life of St. Teresa of Avila that makes the point. The speaker reported that once, late at night, some of Teresa’s fellow Carmelites came to the kitchen to inquire about a ruckus. They were somewhat scandalized to find their Mother Superior delighting noisily in some left-over partridge. Teresa looked up from her feast and explained, “When I fast, I fast. But when I eat partridge, I eat partridge.”
The days of Lent are over. Let us eat partridge!
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