The readings for Ash Wednesday are: Joel 2:12-18; 2 Corinthians 5:20–6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
On Ash Wednesday the Church begins her great Lenten journey with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. For centuries, Lent has been a very intense spiritual journey and experience for the followers of Jesus Christ. Why are there 40 days in Lent? It took 40 days for sinful-ness to drown in the flood before a new creation could inherit the earth. It took 40 years for the generation of slaves to die before the freeborn could enter the Promised Land. For 40 days Moses, Elijah and Jesus fasted and prayed to prepare themselves for a life’s work.
Lent invites us to turn from our own selves, from our sin, to come together in community. Self-denial is the way we express our repentance. Self-denial is threefold, advises Matthew’s Gospel.
We pray: “Go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” We fast: “so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father.” We give alms: “Beware of practising your piety before people in order to be seen by them … so that your alms may be done in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
One of the three Lenten practices open to most misinterpretation today is that of fasting. Fasting has become an ambiguous practice. In antiquity, only religious fasting was known; today, political and social fasting exists (hunger strikes), health and ideological fasting (vegetarians), pathological fasting (anorexia), aesthetic fasting (the cult of the body – believing that thinner is better). There is, above all, a fast imposed by necessity: that of millions of human beings who lack the indispensable minimum and die of hunger.
These fasts in themselves have nothing to do with religious or aesthetic reasons. In aesthetic fasting at times one can even “mortify” the vice of gluttony only to obey another capital vice, that of pride or vanity. Fasting, in itself, is something good and advisable; it translates some fundamental religious attitudes: reverence before God, acknowledgment of one’s sins, resistance to the desires of the flesh, concern for and solidarity with the poor. As with all human things, however, it can fall into “presumption of the flesh.” Remember the words of the Pharisee in the temple: “I fast twice a week” (Luke 18:12).
Lent is a time for us to discover the reasons for the pious practices, disciplines and devotions of our Catholic Christian tradition. What have we done with the important Lenten practice of fasting? If Jesus were here to speak to disciples of today, what would he stress most? We regard as more important the need to “share bread with the hungry and clothe the naked”; we are in fact ashamed to call ours a “fast,” when what would be for us the height of austerity – to be on bread and water – for millions of people would already be an extraordinary luxury, especially if it is fresh bread and clean water.
In his message for Lent 2009, Benedict XVI wrote:
At the same time, fasting is an aid to open our eyes to the situation in which so many of our brothers and sisters live. In his First Letter, St. John admonishes: ‘If anyone has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, yet shuts up his bowels of compassion from him – how does the love of God abide in him?’ Voluntary fasting enables us to grow in the spirit of the Good Samaritan, who bends low and goes to the help of his suffering brother. By freely embracing an act of self-denial for the sake of another, we make a statement that our brother or sister in need is not a stranger. It is precisely to keep alive this welcoming and attentive attitude towards our brothers and sisters that I encourage the parishes and every other community to intensify in Lent the custom of private and communal fasts, joined to the reading of the Word of God, prayer and almsgiving. From the beginning, this has been the hallmark of the Christian community, in which special collections were taken up, the faithful being invited to give to the poor what had been set aside from their fast. This practice needs to be rediscovered and encouraged again in our day, especially during the liturgical season of Lent.
Fasting helps us not to be reduced to pure “consumers”; it helps us to acquire the precious “fruit of the Spirit,” which is “self-control,” it predisposes us to the encounter with God. We must empty ourselves in order to be filled by God. Fasting creates authentic solidarity with millions of hungry people throughout the world. But we must not forget that there are alternative forms of fasting and abstinence from food. We can practice fasting from smoking and drinking. This not only benefits the soul but also the body. There is fasting from violent and sexual pictures that television, movies, magazines and Internet bombard us with daily as they distort human dignity. There is the fasting from condemning and dismissing others – a practice so prevalent in today’s Church.
“See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” We need Lent to help us recognize that our identity and mission are rooted in Jesus’ dying and rising. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the pillars of the Lenten journey for Christians.
Lent is a time to fast from certain things, but also a time to feast on others. Fast from discontent, anger, bitterness, self-concern, discouragement, laziness, suspicion, guilt. Feast on gratitude, patience, forgiveness, compassion for others, hope, commitment, truth, and the mercy of God. Lent is just such a time of fasting and feasting!
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation
This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2008 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B is now available in book form. You can order your copy of “Words Made Flesh: Volume 2, Year B” from the website of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops Publications Service, or from the Salt + Light online store.