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Friday after Ash Wednesday
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” (Matthew 9:14-15 NRSV)
Today is the first Friday in the Lenten season, and like Ash Wednesday, I find myself fasting. I mentioned fasting yesterday as being, along with prayer and almsgiving, one of the chief forms of Lenten penance. Fasting is, as far as I can tell, a pretty much universal spiritual practice in one form or another, and while fasting is not required on Fridays, it is a common tradition, and during Lent abstaining is required of the Catholic faithful.
Fasting & Abstinence
To understand a bit more about fasting and abstinence, I decided to turn to Code of Canon Law, which states:
Abstinence from meat, or from some other food … is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.
…In place of abstinence or fasting [it is possible to] substitute, in whole or in part, other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety. (Canon 1251-1253)
Abstinence is generally understood as giving up meat and items made from meat. It is required of Catholics on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and every Friday of Lent, though many still hold onto the older tradition of abstaining from meat every Friday of the year. It is this reason that fish is so common on Friday dinner plates. As for myself, I have opted to fast on days of abstinence since foregoing meat isn’t asking much from a vegetarian.
There are, of course, other things people may abstain from as well. It is very common for people to give non-food items up for Lent, or to abstain from a certain food or drink. It is not uncommon for Catholics who may not be particularly devout or regularly attend church to still give up something (like chocolate, or coffee, or Facebook, etc.) during Lent.
Fasting is, as you would imagine, the giving up of food for the day. Different traditions interpret that concept in different ways, and in the Roman Catholic tradition fasting is generally understood as eating only one meal a day, with allowance for two smaller meals which do not make up a full meal throughout the day as necessary; drinking water or anything else is not prohibited, and while there are those who have even lived on beer alone during Lent (like these guys), it seems to go against the penitential nature of the Lenten season to me. For The Seeker’s Quest Project‘s Lenten journey, I have opted to fast following a slightly less lenient standard on Wednesdays and Fridays, allowing myself a piece of bread in the morning and a small piece of fruit once or twice during the day.
Fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays
Many Christians since the days of the early church have fasted from food on Wednesdays and Fridays, including devotees of Our Lady of Medjugorje. The significance being that Jesus was betrayed by Judas on a Wednesday and was Crucified on a Friday, so one fasts in remembrance of those events.
When Fasting is Not Alright
While fasting certainly can be a beneficial spiritual practice, there are certain times when fasting is not appropriate. Sundays, being the remembrance of Christ’s resurrection, are days of celebration and never days of fasting; the same is true of solemnities such as Christmas.
Thursday after Ash Wednesday
“The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? (Luke 9:22-25 NRSV)
The season of Lent, which began yesterday, is a season of penance. In the Roman Catholic tradition, penance can refer to both an expression of penitence and to the Sacrament of Penance, also known as Confession or Reconciliation (I plan to discuss the sacraments further in a future post, but it is important to note that penitential acts and the sacrament of penance are deeply connected in the Roman Catholic tradition). I will be discussing the three most prominent forms of penance—fasting, prayer, and almsgiving—in the coming days). Quite simply, we can understand penance as a sense of conversion and a turning of the heart back toward God.
In reality, we can speak of penance as two separate categories—inward expressions of penance and outward expressions of penance. Interior conversion is the root of all forms of penance, and the first step of any penitential act must always be contrition. Outward expressions of penance, which I should make very clear are never considered enough alone for the forgiveness of sins in Catholicism, can include the aforementioned fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, but can also include devotional activities like the Rosary or the Stations of the Cross, pilgrimage, or sometimes mortification of the flesh (more on that in a future post!).
At times, outward expressions of penance take on a strong ascetic nature. This is not understood in the Catholic tradition as a renunciation of the material world, but merely the attachment to the material world. As Pope John Paul II once said, ”This ascetical practice is not based on any negative prejudice towards material realities. In fact, Christianity holds that since all things are created by God they are positive, and so is their use, as long as it conforms to the Creator’s plan.” (Source: Pope John Paul II’s Angelus Message on Sunday, March 3, 1996.)
The source for official teachings within the Roman Catholic Church is known as The Catechism of the Catholic Church, and it speaks to the nature of penance in the Catholic tradition:
IV. Interior Penance
1430 Jesus’ call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, “sackcloth and ashes,” fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance.
1431 Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy and trust in the help of his grace. This conversion of heart is accompanied by a salutary pain and sadness which the Fathers called animi cruciatus (affliction of spirit) and compunctio cordis (repentance of heart).
1432 The human heart is heavy and hardened. God must give man a new heart.25 Conversion is first of all a work of the grace of God who makes our hearts return to him: “Restore us to thyself, O LORD, that we may be restored!”26 God gives us the strength to begin anew. It is in discovering the greatness of God’s love that our heart is shaken by the horror and weight of sin and begins to fear offending God by sin and being separated from him. The human heart is converted by looking upon him whom our sins have pierced:27 (1989)
Let us fix our eyes on Christ’s blood and understand how precious it is to his Father, for, poured out for our salvation, it has brought to the whole world the grace of repentance.28
1433 Since Easter, the Holy Spirit has proved “the world wrong about sin,”29 i.e., proved that the world has not believed in him whom the Father has sent. But this same Spirit who brings sin to light is also the Consoler who gives the human heart grace for repentance and conversion.30 (729, 692, 1848)
V. The Many Forms of Penance in Christian Life
1434 The interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving,31 which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others. Alongside the radical purification brought about by Baptism or martyrdom they cite as means of obtaining forgiveness of sins: efforts at reconciliation with one’s neighbor, tears of repentance, concern for the salvation of one’s neighbor, the intercession of the saints, and the practice of charity “which covers a multitude of sins.”32 (1969
1435 Conversion is accomplished in daily life by gestures of reconciliation, concern for the poor, the exercise and defense of justice and right,33 by the admission of faults to one’s brethren, fraternal correction, revision of life, examination of conscience, spiritual direction, acceptance of suffering, endurance of persecution for the sake of righteousness. Taking up one’s cross each day and following Jesus is the surest way of penance.3
1436 Eucharist and Penance. Daily conversion and penance find their source and nourishment in the Eucharist, for in it is made present the sacrifice of Christ which has reconciled us with God. Through the Eucharist those who live from the life of Christ are fed and strengthened. “It is a remedy to free us from our daily faults and to preserve us from mortal sins.”35 (1394)
1437 Reading Sacred Scripture, praying the Liturgy of the Hours and the Our Father—every sincere act of worship or devotion revives the spirit of conversion and repentance within us and contributes to the forgiveness of our sins.
1438 The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice.36 These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works). (540, 2043)
1439 The process of conversion and repentance was described by Jesus in the parable of the prodigal son, the center of which is the merciful father:37 the fascination of illusory freedom, the abandonment of the father’s house; the extreme misery in which the son finds himself after squandering his fortune; his deep humiliation at finding himself obliged to feed swine, and still worse, at wanting to feed on the husks the pigs ate; his reflection on all he has lost; his repentance and decision to declare himself guilty before his father; the journey back; the father’s generous welcome; the father’s joy—all these are characteristic of the process of conversion. The beautiful robe, the ring, and the festive banquet are symbols of that new life—pure, worthy, and joyful—of anyone who returns to God and to the bosom of his family, which is the Church. Only the heart of Christ who knows the depths of his Father’s love could reveal to us the abyss of his mercy in so simple and beautiful a way. (545)
What forms of penance are you familiar with? Leave your comments below.
“Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.”
(Luke 10:3 NRSV)
You are being sent out, little lambs from the flock;
danger will follow you around the clock.
You will be hunted wherever you roam,
but the reward will be a heavenly home.
The wolves will surround you both day and night;
with perils to be found to the left and the right.
They will be vicious and they will be cruel,
and know that they side with the rich that rule.
The wolves have an system of oppression to defend;
a system of violence which the lambs must transcend.
The wolves will crush you, or stone you, or eat you alive;
so stay close to the Shepherd so you can survive.
The wolves count as allies those with power and gold,
the kings, priests, and landlords are in their fold.
The lambs must be different, so to speak,
embracing the poor, the powerless, and the meek.
The wolf is a creature who lives by what it knows,
so beware of hungry wolves dressed in sheep’s clothes (cf. Mt. 7:15).
A wolf may be honest, or he may be a liar,
But the wolf is devoted to the wicked empire.
Keep an eye on the dens of these hungry beasts,
beware of the Temple, of the scribes and the priests.
“Its officials within it are like wolves tearing the prey,
shedding blood, destroying lives to get dishonest gain” (Ez. 22:27).
Little lamb—so vulnerable, so innocent, and so pure,
the troubles of this world will bring much to endure.
So follow the teachings of your Shepherd—the LORD,
for one day the order of peace will be restored.