On the First Sunday of Lent, the Gospel described how Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights, and yet when Satan approached him in this state of hunger, he was still able to resist the temptation to turn stones into bread and provide food for himself. Jesus responded to this test by recalling the words of Deuteronomy 8:3, “[The LORD] therefore let you be afflicted with hunger, and then fed you with manna, a food unknown to you and your ancestors, so you might know that it is not by bread alone that people live, but by all that comes forth from the mouth of the LORD.
This passage pairs beautifully with the brief but profound and beautiful reflection contained in that Sunday’s Prayer after Communion:
“Renewed now with heavenly bread,
by which faith is nourished, hope increased,
and charity strengthened,
we pray, O Lord,
that we may learn to hunger for Christ,
the true and heavenly Bread,
and strive to live by every word
which proceeds from your mouth.
Through Christ our Lord.”
With these words, the liturgy reminds us of why fasting is so central to our Lenten observances. Firstly, when we are “afflicted with hunger,” we more readily recognize our frailty and our dependence on God’s providence, just as the Israelites did when the Lord provided manna to sustain them in their desert wanderings. In our weakness and tendency toward self-reliance, we are invited to acknowledge that the food that we have is a gift which we receive from the Lord’s bounty.
Second, we are reminded that the physical hunger we experience is not mortification for its own sake, nor do we choose to feel this hunger simply to “appear to others to be fasting” (Mt 6:16) and score points with them or with God. Rather, foregoing physical nourishment is a means towards the end of “learn[ing] to hunger for Christ, the true and heavenly Bread.” This penance reorients our appetites, redirecting them from worldly comforts to that which provides true sustenance—Christ, who offers his very self to us as “the bread of heaven” and “the cup of salvation.”
Indeed, as Jesus says, “My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (Jn 6:55-56). Therefore, “The principal fruit of receiving the Eucharist in Holy Communion is an intimate union with Christ Jesus” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1391). While we often seek to satisfy our earthly cravings through superficial means, Christ satisfies our hunger for goodness and love in a way nothing on earth could. The relationship into which we enter through the eucharistic banquet sustains us in our day-to-day living and puts us in touch, in intimacy with Christ who knows well our sufferings, offers us compassion and solidarity, and models for us a way forward.
Having received this heavenly nourishment, Jesus abides in us so that God’s grace can act in us more freely. It turns us outward in service of others, for “As bodily nourishment restores lost strength, so the Eucharist strengthens our charity, which tends to be weakened in daily life…By giving himself to us Christ revives our love and enables us to break our disordered attachments to creatures and root ourselves in him” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1394). Looking beyond our own needs and desires, we recognize the needs and desires of our neighbor and are moved to action. We are drawn “into Jesus’ act of self-oblation…More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving” (Deus Caritas Est, 13). We are moved to acts of service and almsgiving, to be bread for others.
Indeed, “The Eucharist commits us to the poor. To receive in truth the Body and Blood of Christ given up for us, we must recognize Christ in the poorest, his brethren: ‘You have tasted the Blood of the Lord, yet you do not recognize your brother’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1397).
As we fast this Lent, then, let us be mindful of how our hunger directs us to Christ present in the Bread of Life and in our neighbor. The grace before meals I have prayed since I was a child sums this up beautifully: “Señor, da pan a los que tienen hambre y hambre de ti a los que temenos pan” (“O Lord, give bread to those who hunger, and a hunger for you to those of us who have bread”).