Wednesday of this week was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent and the beginning of our journey towards the most important day in the Church’s Calendar, Easter Sunday.
Ash Wednesday and Good Friday mark the two days when Catholics are asked to limit their eating to one full meatless meal. Two smaller ones may also be taken but they are not to equal that of a full meal.
The Church also desires that meat should not be eaten on Fridays throughout Lent. The practice of Fasting has long been part of the traditional way in which Lent is observed. Why is this and what is the purpose behind it?
Exactly when and where religious fasting originated is hard to pinpoint, but there is evidence of it in ancient Greece, pre-Columbian Peru and among Native American tribes. Today all the major Western religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam still have fasting and abstinence traditions.
As a feature in the yearly cycle of the Church, fasting developed gradually, evolving from an original two days of abstaining from food – Good Friday and Holy Saturday.
However, in the early centuries, it was considered appropriate for a period of preparation to be introduced for the baptism of the newly converted at the Easter Vigil. This progressed to fasting for all the faithful, inspired by Jesus’s forty days sojourn in the desert after his baptism by John the Baptist. The Bible tells us that during this time he fasted and was hungry. When the devil tempts him saying, “Tell these stones to turn into loaves”, Jesus replies, “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
By uniting ourselves with the mystery of Christ’s trial in the desert, we are reminded that the forty days of Lent are like our journey through the desert of this life. If we remain faithful, we too will enter into the true promised land of heaven.
Jesus himself expected his disciples to fast and issued instructions on how they should do so. In the gospel of Matthew, he tells them not to put on gloomy faces when they are fasting, just to attract the attention of others.
Abstinence from certain food is also a biblical discipline. In the Book of Daniel we read how Daniel in mourning for three weeks had no meat or wine. Catholics use a practice similar to Daniel’s when, as a way of commemorating the crucifixion of Christ on a Friday, we abstain from eating meat, substituting it with fish which is a symbol of Christ.
Fasting was understood as humbling oneself before God, as an aid to prayer and as a means of giving instead to the poor.
In the early centuries, the nature of fasting did not have the exactness associated with later centuries – with the Lenten Regulations read out in church a generation ago.
In 2019 Pope Francis said, “Fasting, that is, learning to change our attitude towards others and all of creation, turning away from the temptation to ‘devour’ everything to satisfy our voracity and being ready to suffer for love, which can fill the emptiness of our hearts.”
Fasting shifts our focus from food which is not only necessary for survival but also a source of pleasure and satisfaction. We only have to think about the numerous cookery programs and successful Chefs, not to mention the alternative ‘tasty recipes’ which the various Dieting Programmes offer to those who sign up in an effort to lose weight.
Unfortunately, many people become obsessed with food and use it to ’fill’ gaps in their life or provide comfort around issues which have never been addressed. Their relationship with it becomes unhealthy; the same, of course, can be said for alcohol.
Fasting frees us to concentrate on higher things and discover the more important aspects of life. By choosing to master our instinct to eat we exercise our will-power and clear our mind. We are able to distinguish between what we need and what we want (or think we want). As well as being in solidarity with Jesus in the desert, we are made aware of those who have little food and what life must be like for them on a daily basis.
Such times of penance prepare us for the liturgical feast of Easter. We walk in the way of the cross by prayer and self-denial. It is the three days of the celebration of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus which provides Lent with its origin and gives it its meaning. What we sometimes forget is that Lent is a Season of Joy. Just as parents await with joyful anticipation the birth of a new baby, so too we look forward to the coming of the Lord. The Passion is Jesus’ supreme act of filial obedience to the Father; the resurrection is the fruit of that act and the promise of eternal salvation.
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan