Reprinted as a reminder.
Here it is again–Happy Lent!
Lent helps us enter the deepest and most important mysteries of what it truly means to be human—spirit and flesh fused together. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent and remind us of our mortality. The ashes which are blessed and traced in the form of a cross on our forehead–in exactly the same way the cross is signed on us in our Baptisms–come from the palms of a previous Palm Sunday, also reminding us that the very praises of Hosanna which we sang turn to dust when we deny Our Lord through sin. Another meaning many find is that our praise is worth nothing in and of itself but ashes. Lent is a time of self denial. As Anglicans we need to understand three things about Lent: fasting, abstinence, and discipline.
Fasting is not refraining from all food. Fasting is eating no more than a light breakfast, one full meal (no dessert, of course), and one half meal.
Simply put, abstinence is abstaining from flesh meat. “Flesh meat” here does include chicken, by the way. In other words, Lent may not be the best of times to start the Atkins diet!
When and How?
Well, the Book of Common Prayer requires fasting with abstinence for all forty days of Lent and every Friday of the year outside Christmastide! (Surprised? see page li.) The modern Roman Catholic rule, on the other hand, is to fast and abstain only on Fridays during Lent, a light requirement indeed. A healthy balance between the two would be to fast the forty days and fast with abstinence on Fridays—or one might want to abstain the forty days and fast with abstinence on Fridays. But pick one and stick with it. A rule that changes with our appetites is merely appetite dressed up to look like a rule. Sundays, by the way, are not part of Lent: every Sunday, even purple ones, are feasts and never fasts. (See, there is good news!)
Over-fasting to the point of endangering your heath defeats the purpose of the spiritual exercise. The very young, the very old, and the infirm are customarily not expected to fast. When in doubt one should always consult one’s spiritual director or parish priest. If you don’t have a spiritual director, it’s rather like a coach for your spiritual life. Your parish priest should be able to hook you up with a good SD. Don’t rely on the old wives’ tale that “when you need a spiritual director, one will appear in your life.” That’s just an excuse to avoid getting a trainer when you should always have one.
We often hear about “giving something up” for Lent. Giving up something is not the sole extent of Lenten discipline, however. Our discipline ought to be a fine tuning of our individual Rules of Life, our personal prayer, corporate prayer, devotion, spiritual reading and study, and the corporal acts of mercy. That doesn’t mean that “giving up” is bad; on the contrary, we probably ought to give up much more than we do!
Skeptics and modernists love to talk about “taking something on” instead of giving up something. As I’ve said for years from the pulpit, that is the voice of the devil! He doesn’t want us to give up anything!
In reality, one ought to do both. Give up something and then fill the gap of giving up with prayer, studying, visiting the sick, giving to the poor, shopping for or driving a shut-in. Take something on for Christ this Lent. If you look you’ll find excellent ways to work on building up your spiritual muscles: Stations of the Cross, a small group Bible Study, adding an extra weekday Mass to your schedule, and so on.
The rules we set for ourselves for Lent should help make us better Christians. Lent should bring us closer to God, each other, and His creation. Let us all focus on the real work of the Church. On Ash Wednesday let us all vow to offer prayers, as well as to reach out to our community that we may become Christ to a hurting world. Our baptism made us members of his Body. We are his ears to listen to the dejected and hopeless; we are his voice which speaks words of kindness. It is time to take up our cross and “offer our selves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice.” Let us journey through the cross to the light.