Lent has a way of sneaking up on me. It’s kind of like the Grinch who stole Ordinary Time. I’ve barely recovered from the Christmas season (and I celebrate every last day) and all of a sudden, it’s Ash Wednesday! One of the high school juniors I teach inquired as to what I was giving up “I haven’t yet decided what to give up.” “Perhaps,” replied the same student, “you could give up ending sentences with prepositions.” While I was walking across the room to enter a big, red “F” in my gradebook I thought about how this season of repentance is both difficult and rewarding.
Many of my friends — Catholic and non-Catholic — and even more of the high school students I teach are quite curious about this whole idea of “giving something up” for the Lenten Season. Before I shock you by telling you that it really isn’t about denial but acceptance, perhaps a little lesson is in order. Here now, the history of Lenten sacrifice in a nutshell. In the Gospel, we hear of three penitential acts we must perform in order to do the will of God. They are prayer, giving, and fasting. We are to do these things without fanfare, mind you. “Our Father in heaven sees our good works,” so keep it quiet. I want to focus specifically on fasting, so for the moment, trust that prayer and giving gifts to the poor are good things. But why fast? Well, think about it. In fasting, we are denying ourselves something — food, specifically. What does this teach us? It teaches us a lived solidarity with the less fortunate. Furthermore, Christ asks us to follow Him, to live as He lived and die as He died. In life, Our Lord went out into the desert and, trusting completely in God, went without food for 40 days. In death, he poured out His entire life for love of us. Reading that line just now I feel an urge to put down this bag of Fritos. We learn to trust and we learn to die to ourselves and our selfish desires — you know, such insignificant things like nutrition.
Here’s where it gets interesting. The Catholic Church, our Mother, His Body on earth, is a very wise mother. She knows we aren’t perfect. She knows we struggle. In her wisdom she asks very little of us when it comes to fasting. The Church officially lays out for the rest of us mortals the minimum requirements that to fast one must be between the ages of 18 and 59 (inclusive) and that fasting involves taking only three meals a day. I guess Taco Bell’s “Fourth Meal” is out. Those three, by the way, should include no meat and that two of the meals together not equal the size of one full meal. Oh the fun I’ve had with this one over the years. Apparently, it’s considered cheating when one’s full meal consists of seven courses. Oh, and the two, count ‘em, two days of fasting are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Most of us skip meals all the time. I think it’s only when discipline is attached that we really feel the pinch. This in itself is part of the big picture. We should feel a pinch. Remember, we’re giving of ourselves. The Church also asks those of us over the age of 14 to abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and the Friday’s of Lent (and to perform some penitential act of sacrifice on all other Fridays). God, when does it end?! Trust me, it’s not as hard as we make it to be.
Just so you know, it’s not only Catholics who fast. Our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters also fast. Members of the Islamic faith are hard-core about their fasting. To fast in Islam is to go from sunrise to sunset without eating or drinking a blessed thing! The sawm (Arabic for “fast”) requires Muslims to fast from sex as well. Let’s just say I’ll not be converting anytime soon, you know, because of the food and drink thing. This fast lasts the entire month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Because the calendar is lunar, Ramadan can align with December (when daylight is short) or in July (when it is a long, long day of fasting). In Judaism, although only the Yom Kippur fast is mentioned in the Torah, there are a few other days of fasting. Again, in addition to food and drink (including water), other disciplines may be attached — such as a prohibition from washing one’s body. A Jewish friend of mine shared that, for him, going without leavened bread on Passover was more of a sacrifice than fasting. He also told me that he’s not “your typical Jew”. To each his own. But for each, the idea is the same. One should feel the pinch of hunger to experience that little death which we can unite with Christ’s death on the cross.
Our family’s Lenten practice
So you want specifics? Well, I have two kids and my wife and I try to make our Lenten ritual something that all of us can get involved with. Last year my wife made a giant posterboard calendar upon which we wrote our prayer intentions for our nightly rosary during Lent. This covered the “pray” aspect. By the way, my 3-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter really do me proud with how well they know the Hail Mary! Then we committed to giving away 40 things. Lest you think it was the first 40 random items we came across, we were organized. We focused on small trash bags, filling one a day with clothing, toys the kids no longer play with, books, and we started filling boxes with food items. This covered the “giving” aspect. I “died” a little when I saw my copy of Brittney Spears: My Story in one of the bags of books. Talk about feeling a pinch. I tried to replace it with a copy of The Theology of the Sistine Chapel Art Collection. Didn’t work.
But the best part was our fasting effort. My lovely wife decided that she and I could both cut down on our daily intake of calories. Normally this is called a diet; but done in prayer, it’s fasting. We each committed to small breakfasts, no snacking, light lunches, and no eating out. Dinner, then, became our “big meal.” “Soup!” she said to me. “Boop!” I said back, thinking we were playing a rhyming game. “No, we should eat a meal of soup and bread every night.” Great, this oughta’ be fun. What she neglected to tell me was that the soup was homemade soup from a cookbook of a Trappist monastery. We came to discover by Good Friday that monks eat well. Very well. OK, so perhaps our fasting this year will come from the bread alone part. Point is, fasting is never as hard, nor nearly as easy as we think it will be; but to follow Christ in all things, to accept His friendship — the truest friendship we can ever know — we can’t neglect to share with Him not only in the joy of His resurrection and glory, but also the very sacrifice that preceded it.