A season of fasting and prayer

By Ruth Powers

Although the weather may still be damp and chilly, as we move past Candlemas the lengthening of the days reminds us that we are moving ever closer to spring and to the season of Lent. Most Catholics are aware of the familiar progression of “seasons” of the church as the wheel of the liturgical year turns, but the history of this season may provide us with some food for meditation on ways to observe Lent more fruitfully today.

The word Lent in English is a shortened form of the Old English word lencten, meaning “spring season” and may possibly refer to the lengthening of days during this time. In the languages derived from Greek or Latin, however, the name of the season is derived from the word meaning “fortieth” and gives a hint to the ancient nature of the observance.

Ruth Powers

St. Irenaeus, writing toward the end of the second century, talked about the Lenten fast, saying it originated in the “time of our forefathers”– an expression for the days of the apostles – but varied in length and character from one or two days to a full 40 days before Easter. Often this fast was associated with the catechumens who were preparing for Baptism at Easter. By the time of the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., Lent had become more regularized to a 40-day period meant to reflect the time that Jesus spent fasting in the desert before beginning his public ministry. In the fourth century, several church fathers such as St. Athanasius and St. Cyril of Alexandria wrote of Lent as a forty-day period dedicated to fasting and prayer. Finally, in 461 A.D. Pope St. Leo preached that the whole church was to observe this “Apostolic institution of the 40 days” with fasting and prayer.

Initially the fasting of Lent lasted for the entire 40-day period and included giving up all meat, dairy, eggs and milk, and also eating only one meal a day in the evening. Over the centuries, this was modified to allow eating fish and dairy products, and an additional small meal was allowed for those who engaged in manual labor.

Further modifications were made as time went on until in 1966 Pope Paul VI reduced the obligatory fast days of Lent to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and days of abstinence to Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent. Bishop’s Conferences were given the ability to replace the fast with other forms of penitence such as charity or piety, with the understanding that this was aimed particularly at parts of the world where poverty is widespread and food scarcity is already a problem. This was made part of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which made fasting obligatory for those aged 18 to 59 and made abstinence obligatory for those over the age of 14. If the Feast of St. Joseph (March 19) or the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25) falls on Friday, the rule of abstinence does not apply.

However, fasting is only one of the three traditional “Pillars of Lent.” The other two pillars are focused more on positive acts. The second pillar is prayer, and includes extra acts of prayer, worship or study. Stations of the Cross and the rosary are just a couple of examples of extra acts of prayer. Lent may be an opportunity for someone to begin to pray one of more of the hours from the Liturgy of Hours each day. There are several free smartphone apps which make this very easy to do. Many parishes offer special Lenten study programs as well.

The third pillar is almsgiving, or charity. This does not simply refer to giving money, although donating to charity is certainly a good thing. It also refers to performing other acts of charity, such as volunteering at a local soup kitchen or helping an elderly neighbor. Sharing time and talent with those in need are also acts of charity.

It might be good to look back into our church’s history to find ways to enrich our Lenten observance, beginning with a period of preparation before Ash Wednesday. Most of us in this area are very familiar with Mardi Gras, a season of merrymaking beginning with the Epiphany and lasting until Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. This season is also known as Carnival, which literally translates as “farewell to meat.”

Less well known now is the observance of Shrovetide, which begins 17 days before Ash Wednesday on what the traditional church calendar called Septuagesima Sunday. People used this time to begin preparing themselves for the austerities of Lent and deciding on the penitential practices they would choose. Going to Confession was always a part of this observance and gives the period its name: to be absolved of sin was to be “shriven,” hence Shrovetide.

In many English-speaking countries, such as England and Canada, the day before Ash Wednesday is known as Shrove Tuesday. A traditional meal served on the day is pancakes! These were eaten to use up the butter, eggs and sugar which would not be used during the Lenten season. Those who want to do something more austere in the way of fasting might try a Black Fast, which echoes the early Christian practice of fasting all day until supper is eaten after sunset. They may also be interested in the Daniel fast, based on Daniel 10:3. In this fast one abstains from meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, sweets and wine or any other alcoholic beverages.

Whatever extra penitential practices one chooses, Lent is a time meant to help us grow in self-discipline and spirituality so that we can come to the Easter celebration more closely conformed to Christ.

(Ruth Powers is the program coordinator for St. Mary Basilica Parish in Natchez.)