Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ:
Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. "But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (Mt. 6)
Now that we are in the cusp of Advent when spiritual effort is called for it is important to know what ascetical work is about. We think of it as gloomy and negative. It often brings to mind guilt and shame for things we have done. It becomes in our minds a kind of self-punishment as if by harming ourselves we can undo or make up for the past.
Of course, we cannot change the past or atone for it nor are we asked to do so. We are invited to let go of it, to leave it where it is and not continue to stir up our gauzy memories and relive events that cannot even be remembered accurately. If the Father casts our sins away "as far as the east is from the west," then we are invited to do the same and come live in the present and "sin no more" as Jesus said to the Woman Taken in Adultery.
Then what is fasting for if not a form of self-punishment? It is for one purpose and that is to nurture internal transformation. It is to be done in secret where only God sees. It is a secret work meant to effect a change within from the grasping and clinging that dominates life, to a letting go so profound that it foments a shift in the way we think and live.
My favorite definition of repentance is this, "Repentance is letting go of all hope of a better past" and coupled with that I hear the words of Jesus, "Let not your hearts be troubled believe in God and also in me." His yoke is easy and his burden is light, not so the yoke and burden we place on ourselves. Asceticism is not meant to be a heavy burden, but a liberating practice that leads to happiness by teaching us how to let go and believe, to take a flying leap into freedom and believe in the One who gives us wings.
Yours in Christ,