It probably isn’t entirely accurate to say that one looks forward to Lent, but I do anticipate its arrival, knowing both that I need it, and that it will be hard. Lent imposes what St. John the Baptist taught: I must decrease, He must increase. Whatever weather this particular February 13th will bring, the spiritual climate is already forecast. Ash Wednesday is a uniformly gray day of cold and quiet. A day of sombre reality, of gloom over the impending crucifixion and death of Jesus. A day of turning down the volume on outer distractions. This is the day that initiates our 40 days in the spiritual desert with the reminder that we are dust.
A serious fast day for all Catholics between the ages of 18-59 is imposed by the Church; Ash Wednesday is meant to be hard. It is equalled in severity only by the trauma of Good Friday itself. Ash Wednesday, because it comes first, and we’re often unprepared, can startle our senses and be something of a shock to our system; to understand that these are goods is to enter into the spirit of Lenten observance.
Fundamentally, we fast because Christ did. All of our spiritual endeavors are designed to help us draw closer to the Lord. This is especially true during the season of Lent.
Fasting is one of the great exercises of our faith. Fasting from any of our basic pleasures of food and drink, entertainment, even sleep, is a sure reminder of our utter dependence on the Lord. Fasting brings into clear focus the transitory nature of all worldly goods. While it has the appearance of deprivation, fasting in Lent, according to Pope Benedict XVI, “frees the longing that dwells in the heart of every human being so that it can reach its true height."
Fasting, prayer, and almsgiving are the pillars of Lent, and do seem to be a progression. Fasting helps us to pray more attentively, which nourishes the fruit of charity. Observed faithfully, Lent is one of the great gifts of the Church, inter-connecting us, body and soul, to each other.
Ash Wednesday is our spiritual wake-up call. It allows us to consider front of mind what it is we are most attracted to, or what extraneous habits have cluttered our daily lives, and what we may desire to offer up as humble sacrifices to the Lord.
Historically, the season of Lent entailed more community-wide and rigorous fasting. In Italy, Carnivale, literally carne-va “the meat goes,” foresaw the humble fare of Lent. Mardi gras anticipated the days of Lenten deprivation ahead. In England, Shrove Tuesday was a tradition of eating pancakes, to use up rich foods like eggs, milk, meat, and fats prior to the Lenten fast.
While modern versions of these festivals focus on partying, what we as Catholics carry forward is the root understanding of our need to fast. Lent is a time of physical and spiritual house-cleaning, an annual opportunity to reframe our lives. Increased simplicity of diet and lifestyle can help us more easily lift our hearts and minds to God.
Fasting is essential, Father Ryan Erlenbush explains, “But, when some advocate that we might pray without fasting, these persons are indeed separating soul from body, and doing great harm to the spiritual life. No, indeed, the body must be involved in the prayer of the soul. . . . And, during the season of Lent (when fasting is a matter of precept), the body “prays” with the soul through the Fast. Fasting and mortification are characteristic of true Lenten prayer—since it is by these means that the body and soul enter together into the spiritual combat.”
As we enter Lent, we also recall that the Church regards every Sunday as a feast day, and every Friday as a fast day, which means that during Lent restrictions of fasting are lifted for Sundays, and the additional penance of abstinence is added to our Friday fasts.
While fasting on Sundays in Lent is discretionary, as a matter of practice, it is sometimes difficult to break the fast on Sunday, only to resume it again on Monday through Saturday. Though it can be a good reminder that the purpose of the fast is to give glory to Christ, not to take pride in accomplishments of austerity.
Lent is an ideal time to invest in spiritual practices such as daily Mass and the Rosary, and making time to visit the Blessed Sacrament, patterns that, once initiated, can become part of our lives throughout the year.
A daily plan of spiritual reading can fill the time once devoted to watching television, for example. One year, I decided to start reading from the beginning of the Bible, starting with Genesis, and reading each day through the season of Lent. Actually, I didn’t get very far; admittedly, I am a slow reader of Scripture, but the practice was richly rewarding.
The community aspect to the season of Lent is important. Recalling the festivals of our forebears, Christians have always understood that we draw strength from the community.
With so many of our brothers and sisters in Christ also fasting, we help each other in our efforts. The specifics of individual fasts need not be known; those agreements are between the believer and the Lord. Our prayers support and lift each other, and we are strengthened in our resolve to fast. In this way, the season of deprivation becomes a season of great fruitfulness. Sancta Maria, mater Dei, ora pro nobis.
Losana Boyd is a writer and artist from New York, currently living in Florence, Italy.
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Photo Credits: Relationships and Sexuality: Raul Cabrera; Society and Politics: Andrea Williams; Bioethics: Bertha Crowley; Church and Community: Antoine Mghayar; Wellness and Beauty: Meghan; Arts and Culture: John Singer Sargent