Today's Gospel deals with the practice of fasting recalling the comments of Jesus that fasting does not happen when the bridegroom is still around. That is an interesting connection: linking fasting with the absence of God. Perhaps that is a way to discern why and how we might fast in a secular and individualised culture.
If fasting has to be related to an absence of God the link with the Lenten period becomes stronger; fasting becomes more than just self-denial or self control, it becomes a specific way of growth on the faith journey of the individual and the world.
When an awareness of the absence of God becomes a criteria for fasting it helps us as both individuals and communities to focus our fasting and link it to the paschal mystery in a more concrete way. For example a person may realise that their married relationship is a place where God has largely become absent. That then becomes the place where the "bridegroom is no longer with them" and therefore the place where fasting might be focused In a community context a person may conclude that the office workspace where they spend much of their day is a Godless environment and that may become the focus for their fasting. A young person may look at their life and feel that God is absent because they never stop to think deeply and that absence of reflection is something that needs fasting from.
The definition of fasting that is implied by these reflections may well expand to include aspects of alms-giving and prayer, the other two disciplines of lent. The fasting element is that of self denial "agere contra" going against one's self. So the married person may well decide that switching the television off and sitting with their partner for half an hour three nights a week might be a good way to fast from a self-centred lifestyle. This might include giving up soap operas or football matches which could be seen as a form of fasting. The person working in a Godless office space might well decide to pray quietly at their desk for five minutes at lunchtime as a way of resisting the relentless tide of gossip and back-biting sweeping through the workspace. In this situation prayer and self-control form a type of fasting that might help to change the world of the office for all concerned. The young person realising that they never stop to think might pick up the challenge of a silent face-book which +cafod is promoting at present.
If fasting was seen as focused around an absence of God in our world it has the ability to draw together the other two elements of Lenten discipline (prayer and alms-giving) into a single resolution that leads to life for the individual and the community in which people live. On a wider scale fasting has the same focus when family fast day comes around. Dorothy Day began a fast during Vatican II to raise awareness among bishops of the need for peace. Gandhi fasted in a similar way to bring God back into an increasingly Godless and unjust culture.
Choosing how to fast this lent can be the most significant choice for the whole year. It can bring God into the shadows of our lives as a messiah. It can give us the courage to feel the emptiness and desert areas of our lives and realise that it is the only place where we can meet Christ because that is where he is waiting to heal us and our world.