Today is Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday begins the great season of Lent, when we are invited to “return sincerely to the Lord our God with fasting prayer and mourning” (Jl 2:12) and to offer to God a sacrifice of a humble and contrite spirit. It is the time of the year when we are reminded again that we are dust, and to dust we will return. On a more positive note, we are reminded “to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”
Today is universal day of fasting and abstinence. Catholics all over the world are encouraged to pray, to fast and abstain, and to share to the poor and the needy. Simply put, to do penance. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that 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 (Cf. Tob 12:8; Mt 6:1-18), which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God and to others (CCC 1434).
What is penance? What does it mean to do penance? “Penance is concrete daily effort of a person, supported by God’s grace to lose his/her own life for Christ as the only means of gaining it; an effort to put off the old man and put on the new; an effort to overcome in oneself what is of the flesh in order that what is spiritual may prevail; it is a continual effort to rise from the thing of here below to things above, where Christ is. Penance is ,therefore, a conversion that passes from the heart to deeds to the Christian whole life” (JP, PR)
Penance such as prayer, fasting and almsgiving prepare us for the liturgical feast; they help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart (Cf. CIC, cann. 1249-1251; CCEO. Can. 882)
How do we make our penance fruitful and meaningful?
- Let us do our penance out of personal conviction and in freedom. Let us guard ourselves of legal formalism and superficiality which the prophets had already denounced, pride and ostentations if one fasts “in order to be seen by men. It must be done in secret, with sincerity and voluntarily.
- Let us fast, pray and share to the needy as our penance out of our love for God and neighbor. This is the greatest commandment. This is the summary of the all the laws of Moses and the teachings of the prophets. Nothing more, nothing less and nothing else.
- “This rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread to the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked, and not turning your back on your own” (Is 58:6-8).
- Penance finds its fulfillment, meaning and relevance only in the context of “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 (Cf. 2:12-13; Is. 1:16-17; Mt. 6;1-6; 16-18).
Interior repentance is a radical orientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our hearts, an end to 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 the spirit) and compunctio cordis (repentance of the heart) (Cf. Council of Trent (1551): DS 1676-1678; 1705; cf. Roman Catechism, II, V, 4).
Fasting, prayers and almsgiving are interconnected and complimentary. Fasting is the soul of prayer. Mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. So when you pray, fast; when you fast, show mercy.
Starting this Ash Wednesday as we begin the season of lent, strive to be humble and “return to God with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts not your garments, and return to the Lord your God. For gracious and merciful is He, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment” (Jl 2:12-13).