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 a universal day of fasting and abstinence. Catholic spirituality traditionally includes in repentance some form of penance. Penance means some practice that lets us express sorrow for our sins and helps repair the damage that sin has caused.
Penance gives us important practice in resisting temptation, thereby strengthening us. It greatly strengthens a number of virtues, especially charity, and it greatly enriches life.
The Catholic Church has two official forms of penitential practices: fasting and abstinence. These are so important that they’re one of the precepts of the Catholic Church.
Fasting is reducing the amount of food you eat below normal levels. Specifically, on fast days you may eat one full meal and two smaller meals, but those two smaller together should not exceed the amount of the normal meal. Snacking is also prohibited on fast days.
All Catholics age 18 to 59 are required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. You are excused from fasting if you have a legitimate need to eat a normal amount of food on fast days. This includes:
The sick or infirm, including handicapped or mentally ill people who need the nourishment or cannot make a free choice to fast Pregnant or nursing women Some manual laborers Abstinence means not eating meat (fish is not considered meat in this case). All Catholics 14 and older are required to observe abstinence on these days:
Ash Wednesday, Good Friday (the Friday before Easter), and all Fridays in Lent. This is required on all Fridays of the year, in honor of the Passion of Jesus on Good Friday. In the U.S., it is still strongly recommended to observe Friday abstinence outside of Lent, but Catholics may choose to substitute another penitential practice or act of charity for these days. Note that the duty to perform the tasks of your state in life takes precedence over the law of fasting in the precepts of the Catholic Church. If fasting honestly causes you to be unable to fulfill your required tasks, it is uncharitable to fast — the law of fasting would not apply in this case. (Consult with a priest if this is a concern to you.)
Catholics all over the world, in this season of Lent, 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 fast “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).