These first days of Lent are kind of a tutorial. Today's lesson is on fasting. The first reading lets us know right away that God is not all that interested in our food intake: fasting is supposed to involve us body and soul. "Would that today you might fast so as to make your voice heard on high!" God says through Isaiah. That we tend to insist on limiting the notion to our food intake becomes obvious from the Gospel. Disciples of the ascetic John the Baptist come to Jesus, a bit scandalized that his followers don't seem to do "much" fasting, while "we and the Pharisees fast much."
Fasting is one of those practices common to just about every major religion worthy of the name. And Catholics are probably the most lax of all, with two obligatory days of fasting in Lent (and for Americans, one day of penance and fasting on Jan. 22, in reparation for sins against human life). It has been said that one of the biggest obstacles to unity with the Eastern Orthodox is that Catholics don't manifest a spirit of penance. When the issue was brought to Jesus' attention so long ago, he admitted that at the time, his disciples were not practicing the typical penitential fast. The bridegroom of the whole world was among them; it was still the time of the wedding feast. But he said that the time would come "when the bridegroom is taken away--and then they will fast." That fasting has to mean something: that we recognize the bridegroom for who he is; that we feel his absence; that we long for his return.