A friend has asked, what are we supposed to do during Lent? How is one to Fast? What is Ash Wednesday about and What particular things can one do for Lent?
On matters of fasting and abstinence
Ash Wednesday and Good Friday of the Easter Triduum are days of fasting and abstinence.
Fasting consists of one meal during the day and two smaller meals to maintain strength, and the two smaller meals should not together be equal to another full meal. The church fast is not one that should weaken a person that they cannot fulfill their duties in work or family. The Church purposely leaves a certain part of the fast ambiguous because each person must figure out for themselves what consists of a ‘full meal’ and what consists of a “snack” or “lesser meal.” Each person is different so the adult christian must take responsibility for how they will live their fast. The age for fasting is from 18 to 60.
Abstinence means no meat, and is encouraged for every Friday of the year. During the year however it can be difficult to maintain the practice of abstinence and so on the occasions you do eat meat on a Friday you can substitute abstinence with an extra “Act of Charity” of your own design. The age to begin the practice of Abstinence is 14.
The reason for fasting and abstinence, especially during lent, is to spiritually unite ourselves to Jesus’ sojourn in the dessert (Mat 4:1-11) where he fasted for forty days and overcame temptations. It is a time to purify oneself through penance and sacrifice. We do this so that virtue may be gained and our spiritual connection to God be strengthened. Holiness can be gained through these holy practices especially when joined with prayer. There are three major paths to grow in holiness which the Fathers of the Church strongly suggest: Fasting, Prayer and Almsgiving or “acts of charity”.
Ash Wednesday Marks the beginning of Lent, and receiving the ashes is a sign of penance. Many in the old testament, like King David, would sit in Sackcloth and Ashes to show repentance for Sins committed. For the reception of ashes on Ash Wednesday, present yourself to the priest and he will put the ashes on your forehead saying: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” to which you respond with “Amen.” The word “Amen” means “So be it” or “I believe.” The priest may also use an alternate saying: “Remember, Man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This calls to mind our mortality and the need for conversion and salvation before we meet God face to face.
You may keep the ashes on all day if you made it to the morning service, for it is a real sign of your faith and practice, but it is not necessary and could distract people at the work place. It is up to you. What is important here is the symbolic gesture of receiving the ashes: one is now entering the Lenten time of prayer, fasting and penance for the good of their soul.
A Personal Practice
For personal particular practices of lent: The fast can be from the things you tend to indulge yourself in. It is good to do this because it strengthens the resolve not to be ruled by ones passions, and to claim mastery over ones life. That is why many people may give up coffee or chocolate, or Television or anything that one can get carried away with. It is about taking control of ones appetites (which is not just about food): for example you can fast from swearing, from sarcastic remarks, from laziness, greed etc.. (Of course, we should always avoid sinful habits, not only during Lent!) Some married couples even choose to fast from sexual pleasure. We do all these things to put Love of God and of neighbor first. Each Catholic has to figure out what they can do for a good holy Lenten season. Oh, and generally Sundays during lent are still feast days, they are days of resurrection, and the Lenten practice may be lifted.
May you all have a holy Lenten season.