Ash Wednesday occurred earlier this week, and it marks the official start of the season of Lent. (Guess which day of the week Ash Wednesday landed on this year? Oh, you're so smart.)
During Lent, Catholics are called to engage in fasting and abstinence. Whoa, I didn’t mean to startle you and make you drop your bacon double cheeseburger. Don’t worry, the fasting and abstinence isn’t for the entire 40 days of Lent; it’s just for specific days. We are called to avoid meat on Fridays during Lent (I can already hear people exclaim, “Thank goodness for baked stuffed shrimp and lobster!”). And we are called to engage in fasting on two days: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
No, that does not mean you have to go without food for the entire day—although based on the latest government report on how many bacon double cheeseburgers Americans eat every year, maybe that’s not a bad idea. The Catholic requirement for a fast day is this: only one full meal, and then two small half-meals. Also, snacking in between meals is not allowed.
So, the bottom line is, on these two days of fasting, American Catholics must reduce their consumption of food to a level that is GREATER than what is eaten each day by 90-percent of the world’s population.
From a global perspective, it’s almost embarrassing, since the requirements of our Lenten fasting and abstinence are not very difficult at all. But people don’t eat from a global perspective, we eat from a personal perspective. If we are typical Americans, this means our stomachs are accustomed to three or four very full meals each day, plus plenty of snacking while waiting for the next full meal. If we suddenly do the one-full plus two-halves with no-snacks exercise, it might feel a lot like starvation. At the very least our stomachs will be growling most of the day.
Of course, no one likes a growling stomach, and that’s why most American Catholics simply ignore the Church’s requirements about Lenten fasting. No, that’s not exactly true; the real reason so many American Catholics ignore Lenten fasting is because they have no clue WHY the Church calls us to fast in the first place.
According to Catholic author Scott Richert, “Fasting … is the voluntary avoidance of something that is good.” Now wait a minute, that doesn’t make sense. Why would we want to avoid something good?
Well, Richert continues, “[Fasting] is primarily a spiritual discipline designed to tame the body so that we can concentrate on higher things….By controlling the passions of the body, we free our souls for prayer.”
When we fast—when our stomachs growl and all we can think about is getting a couple of bacon double cheeseburgers ASAP—that is the time when we realize we are completely dependent on God. An empty stomach really heightens our ability to pray.
As the Bible says, “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heavens.…A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” (Or if you’re a little rusty on the book of Ecclesiastes, think of the song “Turn, Turn, Turn” by The Byrds back in the 1960s.)
The problem with most Americans is that we want the good stuff all the time. But in the cycle of the Church calendar, sometimes we fast, other times we feast; sometimes we mourn, other times we rejoice. The joyous feast of Easter becomes much sweeter and more meaningful if we first fast during Lent.
So let’s really make a prayerful and determined fast during Lent this year. It will make the feasting of Easter much more enjoyable. And if we’re lucky, maybe the main course at Easter dinner will be bacon double cheeseburgers.