The Gospel of the Mass narrates that the disciples of John the Baptist asked Jesus: Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?
Fasting was, then and always, a further sign of the spirit of penitence that God asks of man. "In the Old Testament, the religious meaning of penance is discovered with ever greater richness, as a religious, personal act, which ends in love and abandonment to God". Accompanied by prayer, it serves to manifest humility before God: the one who fasts turns to the Lord in an attitude of total dependence and abandonment. In Sacred Scripture we see fasting and other works of penance before undertaking a difficult task, to implore forgiveness for a fault, to obtain the cessation of a calamity, to obtain the necessary grace in the fulfilment of a mission, to prepare oneself for an encounter with God, etc.
John the Baptist, knowing the fruits of fasting, taught his disciples the importance and necessity of this practice of penance. In this he agreed with the pious, Law-loving Pharisees, who were surprised that Jesus had not taught it to the Apostles. But the Lord comes to the defence of his own: Can the friends of the bridegroom be afflicted while the bridegroom is with them? The bridegroom, according to the Prophets, is God Himself who manifests His love to men.
Christ declares here, once again, His divinity and calls His disciples the friends of the bridegroom, His friends. They are with Him and need not fast. However, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, then they will fast. When Jesus is not visibly present, mortification will be necessary to see Him with the eyes of the soul.
The whole penitential sense of the Old Testament "was but a shadow of things to come. Penance - a requirement of the interior life confirmed by the religious experience of humanity and the object of a special precept of divine revelation - acquires in Christ and in the Church new, infinitely wider and deeper dimensions".
The Church in early times preserved penitential practices, in the spirit defined by Jesus. The Acts of the Apostles mention celebrations of worship accompanied by fasting. St. Paul, during his overflowing apostolic work, was not content to suffer hunger and thirst when circumstances demanded it, but added repeated fasts. And the Church has always remained faithful to this penitential practice, determining in every age the days on which the faithful should fast and recommending this pious practice, with the timely advice of spiritual direction.
But fasting is only one of the forms of penance. There are other forms of bodily mortification to be practised, which facilitate conversion and union with God. We can ask ourselves today how we live the penitential sense in our whole life, and in a particular way in this liturgical season of Lent in which we find ourselves.