Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it. (Jonah 3:4-5, 10)
Scripture does not give a detailed account of the wicked deeds that called down God’s wrath upon the Ninevites. It is hard to imagine a more wicked age than the one we live in, although perhaps all generations have felt the same way. One thing is certain, God cannot be pleased by what he sees. If the Mother of God has called us to fast and pray for the sake of the world, it is because she knows that converted hearts have the power to soften the blow she knows is coming to the world.
In this reading we find a beautiful testament to the penitential power of fasting. What hope this should give to us! God relented because the people of Nineveh fasted. God is moved by fasting. But why? What is it about fasting that can move the mountain called God?
Scripture is filled with references to the power of fasting. When the disciples of Jesus had difficulty casting out demons in His name, he told them that certain demons could only be cast out by fasting and prayer.
No wonder the evil one tries so hard to discourage us from this holy practice! No wonder the Mother of God asks so persistently for her children to add fasting to their prayers. The call to fasting should humble us greatly. For the power it can wield in the spiritual realm is worth infinitely more than what it costs us.
The catechism cites the triple virtues of prayer, fasting and almsgiving as outward expressions of conversion in relationship to God, to oneself and to others. Fasting puts us in a “right relationship” with ourselves by helping us to die to self, and as the Lord Jesus told us, when we die to self, then we shall live.
But fasting is only one leg on this three-legged stool, and a one-legged stool is virtually useless. Prayer must come first, so that our relationship with God may flourish. Without prayer our fasting will fall flat. And as faith without works is dead, if our prayer and fasting do not lead to almsgiving, the two-legged stool will be unsupported. We cannot please the God of order and peace unless we cultivate a right relationship with him, with ourselves and with our neighbor. All of this must flow from a complete conversion of heart.
If we look more closely at the response of the people of Nineveh to the call of Jonah, we can see that it was not their fasting alone that moved God to mercy. It was their conversion of heart that sanctified their fasting and made it effective and acceptable before God. There was no hypocrisy in it, as there was in the Pharisees whom Jesus reproved for their “show” of fasting. The fasting of the Pharisees moved God to anger, not mercy.
Therein lies the key to our fasting: the disposition of our hearts. St. Louis Marie de Montfort said, “If but a pin is given in homage, and given with a good heart, it will be enough for Jesus, who loves only the good will.” The people of Nineveh had that pegged. Do we?
Whatever we give or give up, whenever we pray, let it be done with a joyful heart, filled with love and trust for the merciful God who calls us to a life of penance. May the small sacrifices we offer, united to the Cross of our Savior bear abundant fruit in this world and in the world to come. May the Lord have mercy on us all.