Jesus …was led by the Spirit through the wilderness …for forty days. During that time he ate nothing (Luke 4:1-13)
Lent is often caricatured as a depressing season full of gloomy readings about repentance, almost totally arbitrary abstinence from unnecessary things, and by, what may appear to strangers, a morbid fascination with the detailed remembrance of one man’s sufferings and death. This caricaturing is yearly reinforced by the usual question “What am I going to give up for Lent?” But whilst there may be certain degrees of merit and value in giving up superfluous things on which we are prone to indulge or binge – such as alcohol, social media, or puddings – this attitude does not express fully the great benefits we could reap by keeping a holy Lent if we worked on its three core practice of fasting, personal prayer, and almsgiving.
Lent is not a detox period, it is not a religious version of dieting, but it is primarily a chance to work on ourselves so that we may return to God with all our hearts (Cf. Joel 2:12), reorienting our spiritual compass in order to begin living a more genuine Christian life. By working on ourselves I mean labouring through fasting, prayer, and almsgiving to change and seek forgiveness of those things that daily distract us from God, whilst remitting ourselves to his mercy, knowing that as we try to amend ourselves God will both work in us to help us in our changes and that also he will welcome us back with all his heart. Over the next weeks I would like to explore with you something about each of these three Lenten practices.
Let’s start with fasting but even though I want to have a look a physical fast let us not ‘define the good derived from [it] only in terms of abstaining from food. For true fasting is being a stranger to vice’ (First Homily on Fasting, St Basil).
Giving up something for Lent, or abstinence as it is properly called, springs from this – from the early Christian practice of abstaining from food during daylight hours on certain days, and avoiding to eat meat on others. Commonly we may think of Lenten fast as something that aims to partly replicate what Jesus did in the wilderness and there is some truth in this because we do take our inspiration in this the from today’s gospel reading – as the Catechism of the Church affirms ‘By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert’ (CCC540). But this is not the principal reason for the Lenten fast. Other people may think of fast a sort of self-inflicted punishment but, even though fasting is a sign of penitence, self-inflicted punishment is definitely not its biblical interpretation. Instead, we should think of fasting as a practice aimed at purifying both body and soul, and preparing ourselves for something important just as in today's gespel Our Lord fasts in the desert before beginning his ministry.
Let me give you other few examples from Scripture. In Genesis fasting or abstinence from eating a certain fruit is the only commandment prescribed by God. Moses fasted in the wilderness each time he prepared to meet God on Mount Sinai to receive the commandments (Cf. Exodus 34:28). The prophet Elijah fasted in a cave on mount Horeb before being granted the vision of God (Cf. 1Kings 19:8:13); and again ‘while fasting he restored the child to the widow, fasting granting him power over death’ (First Homily on Fasting, St Basil, Cf. 1Kings 17:17-24). Jesus says that in particular circumstances both fast and prayer are needed to achieve greater results (Cf. Matthew 17:21). And in the Acts of the Apostles fasting and prayer are adopted by the Church before laying hands on those to be ordained (Barnabas and Paul Acts 13:2-3, and more aptly 14:23). From this we can see that fasting prepares us for something important. Christian fasting ‘prepares us for liturgical fests’ and helps us ‘acquire mastery over our [most natural] instincts and freedom of heart’ (CCC2043), so Lenten fast in particular prepares us for the celebration of Easter, helping us to work on ourselves for the moment when we will renew our Baptismal vows and we will commit ourselves afresh to living the Christian life.
As a side note, fasting can be connected to almsgiving as we could donate the money they have saved on food to the poor, that is to those who fast daily because of our unfair society, and not through choice.
From a practical point of view, Lenten fast is recommend each Friday culminating on Good Friday with the celebration of the Lord’s Passion. Other possible fast days are Ash Wednesday (even though the diocese of Leicester decided to give out cupcakes instead of ashes on that day!) and Wednesdays in general, the day in which Judas accepted to betray the Lord – so if you were thinking of beginning a five-two diet, this could be your chance, but bear in mind that, as I mentioned earlier, Lent is not Christian dieting. Obviously, there can be certain health implications, and traditionally the sick, and pilgrims have been dispensed. If you are unable to physically fast then, maybe you could focus on abstaining from meat and remembering to keep the short fast before receiving Holy Communion.
Above all, remember Jesus’ command; when we fast let us keep it between us and God so that our actions may “be seen not by others but by the Father; and Father who sees in secret will reward us.” (Cf. Matthew 6:18)