1. What the Ash Wednesday Fast Consists Of
This is from St. Mary's bulletin from this past Sunday:
FAST AND ABSTINENCE: Everyone over 14 years of age is bound to observe abstinence (NO MEAT). ABSTINENCE IS TO BE OBSERVED ON ALL FRIDAYS OF LENT AND ON ASH WEDNESDAY.
On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, everyone between the ages of 18 and 60 years of age is bound to observe the law of fast. On these two days ONLY ONE FULL MEATLESS MEAL IS ALLOWED. Two other meatless meals, sufficient to maintain strength, may be taken according to each one’s needs; but together they should not equal another full meal.
The only thing that I would add to that is that water and medication are also permitted. Ash Wednesday shouldn't leave you sick. It should just be a spiritual reminder of the sufferings of Christ.
2. The Biblical Basis for Days of Fasting
I've heard it argued that days like Ash Wednesday aren't in keeping with the Christian message; that since we're now a redeemed, "Easter people," there's not a need or a place for days of fasting. Jesus disagrees with this assessment in Luke 5:33-35:
They said to him, "John's disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking." Jesus answered, "Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast."
And indeed, even after Easter, we see the Apostles fasting to allow the Holy Spirit more room to work in their lives, as Acts 13:2-3 and Acts 14:23 demonstrate. Note also that in both Acts 13 and 14, everyone's fasting together. Which means that there were communal days of fasting from the time of the Apostles. Fasting is also intended as a time of spiritual preparation: once Easter has arrived, that's a time for rejoicing and not fasting. As Ecclesiastes 3:1 says, "There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven..." A good Lent is the preparation for a great Easter. The celebration of the arrival of Easter prepares us for the arrival of the Bridegroom, Christ, at His Second Coming, and like Jesus says, "Can you make the guests of the Bridegroom fast while He is with them?"
3. Purposes of Ash Wednesday and Lent
It's spring cleaning, or to use a better metaphor, "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us" (Hebrews 12:1). Note that the verse mentions two separate categories: sin (which entangles), and everything that hinders. Entangling is worse than hindering. A runner can still run with a backpack on, but he can't run if he's caught in the briar patch, or his shoes are tied together. The first hinders, the second entangles. So let Lent be a time both to throw off sin, and throw off all of the bad habits which, while not rising to the level of sin, can weigh us down.
I find that even a lot of non-Catholics enjoy Lent as a time of spiritual reparation and preparation, because it speaks to our real need to amend our ways when we periodically get off course. It's the same desire that leads people to make New Year's Resolutions. Anyways, a few thoughts:
- The goal of fasting is spiritual, not physical. The First Reading today is from Joel 2:12-18, and begins: "Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart,with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments,and return to the LORD, your God." I like the verse because it shows the appropriate role and relationship between external actions (like fasting, weeping, and mourning) and internal realities (like "rend[ing] your heart"). As the passage continues, there's a call to "Blow the trumpet in Zion! Proclaim a fast, call an assembly; Gather the people..." making it clear that the fasting God is calling for is both external and communal. But that external action is designed to lead to internal actions, like turning your heart back to God.
- Don't let your Lenten resolutions lead you to greater sin. The Gospel today is from Matthew 6:1-6 and Matthew 6:16-18, about how fasting can lead you into greater sins, like pride.
- Give up what you feel you can't. I usually try and find the things which I feel like I can't do without, or which I'm aware are the hardest to do without. This year, it's going to be soda and iPhone games. Both are things which are hinderances: bad for my health in the first case, bad usage of my time in the second.
- Give up, then give. Here's a cool idea: the early Christians used to take the money which they would have spent on food for the day, and then give it to the poor. It's charitable, but it's more than that: it removes the temptation to view fasting as a way to save money, and avoids sins like greed.
- Fill the gap. We're intentionally creating a gap in our lives: a gap where things like eating full meals, or drinking soda, or spending time on ridiculous cell phones games once stood. The gap may be one of time, or money, or both. Work to fill that gap with something spiritual. Maybe you do like the early Christians and give the saved money to the poor, or to the Church. Or maybe you take the time you would be spending watching TV, and use it reading the Bible or solid Catholic books.
Finally, offer it up. There will be times when you're suffering during Lent, deprived of something you want, or feeling hungry, or perhaps even being the butt of jokes for having ashes on your forehead. The best thing that you can do is to just offer your sufferings up to Christ, ask that they be united with His own, and that they serve to edify and help you grow spiritually; or offer the sufferings up for the souls in Purgatory, so that we may suffer in some way in union with them (1 Corinthians 12:26). Fish Eaters explains Catholic views on this, but as usual, be cautious with their stuff. Less substantially, but more beautifully, Amy Welborne wrote a good piece after her husband died unexpectedly of all of the beautiful spiritual generosity provided by others in a post which maybe best explains why we "offer it up."