I. Getting Ready for Lent—Ash Wednesday, February 26


The holy season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday (26 February 2020). As early as the second century of the Christian era, the beginnings of the various practices of what became Lent were developing. By that time, the faithful were already preparing for Easter with a two-day, grief-inspired fast. Though seldom observed and too often overlooked, the paschal (or Easter) fast—the oldest of all Christian fasts—is still recommended by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, “Nevertheless, let the paschal fast be kept sacred. Let it be celebrated everywhere on Good Friday and, where possible, prolonged throughout Holy Saturday, so that the joys of the Sunday of the resurrection may be attained with uplifted and clear mind” (Sacrosanctum concilium, n. 110). This is not the like penitential Lenten fast which predates the Sacred Triduum. No, the fast on Good Friday and Holy Saturday is a joyfilled fast, because you’re too hungry to eat. Lent ends on Holy Thursday, as the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper is celebrated, the Paschal fast is to be a joyful fast of anticipation as you look forward to the celebration of Easter and to the impending baptisms at the Easter Vigil. The fasting of Good Friday and Holy Saturday, by tradition, includes also abstaining from unnecessary work or entertainment. Prayer, reading of Scripture, reflection, attention to the needs of others: these should fill those days to prepare for the great Vigil and Eastertime.

 

II. Getting Ready for Lent—Ash Wednesday, February 26


Most practicing Catholics realize that Lent is a time “to give up something” as a sacrifice and reminder. Such a voluntary act is really penance in the same spirit that marked the Ninevites who repented after hearing Jonah preach. Throughout the history of religions, various believers have found prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to contribute to repentance from sin and inner renewal. Saint Peter Chrysologus (ca. 380-450) linked those three traditional Lenten disciplines when he wrote, “There are three things by which faith stands firm, devotion remains constant, and virtue endures. They are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains, mercy receives. Prayer, mercy and fasting these three are one, and they give life to each other” (Sermo 43: PL 52, 320, 322). Scripturally, only in the Book of Tobit will you find that those three are all needed. The Angel Raphael tells Tobit and his son Tobias that you find prayer, fasting, righteous acts, and almsgiving as related, “Prayer with fasting is good. Almsgiving with righteousness is better than wealth with wickedness. It is better to give alms than to store up gold, for almsgiving saves from death, and purges all sin. Those who give alms will enjoy a full life…” (Tb 12:8-9). These three penitential practices are often more subtly mentioned in Scripture — the three Temptations of Christ during His forty days in the desert, the three temptations that Eve experienced in the Garden of Eden and the second round of temptations that Jesus was subjected to in the Garden of Gethsemane. By engaging in all three disciplines, then, Lent becomes a time for the renewal of repentance, fervent seeking after God, and increased love and concern for others.


III. Getting Ready for Lent—Ash Wednesday, February 26

 

“The 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, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others” (CCC, n.1434). Prayer: More time given to prayer during Lent will draw you closer to the Lord. Since Lent is baptismal in nature, pray for the grace to live out your baptismal promises more fully. Pray for the Elect who will be baptized at Easter and support their conversion journey by your prayer or for the already-baptized, who are candidates for full communion. Pray for all those who will celebrate the sacrament of Penance during Lent that they will be truly renewed in their baptismal commitment. Fasting: Fasting is one of the most ancient practices linked to Lent. In fact, the paschal fast predates Lent as we know it. The early Church fasted intensely for two days before the celebration of the Easter Vigil. This fast was later extended and became a 40-day period of fasting leading up to Easter. Vatican II called us to renew the observance of the ancient paschal fast: “…let the paschal fast be kept sacred. Let it be celebrated everywhere on Good Friday and, where possible, prolonged throughout Holy Saturday, so that the joys of the Sunday of the Resurrection may be attained with uplifted and clear mind” (SC, n. 110). Abstaining: Abstaining from meat traditionally serves as a link to the poor, who could seldom afford meat for their meals. It can do the same today if you remember the purpose of abstinence and embrace it as a spiritual link to those whose diets are sparse and simple. That should be the goal that you set for yourself: a sparse and simple meal. Almsgiving: As the third traditional pillar of Lent, this is a sign of your care for those in need and an expression of gratitude for all that God has given you. Works of charity and the promotion of justice are integral elements of the Christian way of life that began at baptism. For almsgiving delivers from death and keeps you from entering into Darkness. Almsgiving is a worthy offering in the sight of the Most High for all who practice it” (Tobit 4:10-11).

 

Fasting like it is 1917

 

The current rules of fasting are nothing like they were before the Second Vatican Council. And compared to the more stringent and frequent fasts among Orthodox Christians, only fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday is almost too easy. "Yes, I have understood that our faith in Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is identical. But I have found that the Church of Rome has abolished fasting, and without fasting there is no Church.” Eucharistic Fast. For centuries, Catholics were required to fast from all food and drink, including water! Pope Saint Pius X, in the decree Sacra Tridentina lowered the age for receiving Holy Communion and sought to encourage frequent—even daily—Communion at a time when the majority of Catholics often received only once a year. Then, during the 1950s, Pope Pius XII, instead of Masses only being celebrated on Sunday morning, allowed some parishes to begin to offer anticipated Masses on Saturday evenings. Gradually, this innovation led to the changes that all parishes currently have vigil (Sunday) Masses after 4pm on the eve of Sunday. This was intended to help Catholics with legitimate commitments such as hospital workers to fulfill their “Sunday obligation.” When taken in combination, after Pope Pius X allowed the reception of Holy Communion more frequently and lowered the age of receiving the Eucharist along with Pope Pius XII permitting evening Masses on Saturday, the next step consideration would address the issue of the Eucharistic fast as a preparation for receiving Communion. In 1953, Pope Pius XII adjusted the strict fast and allowed medicine and water to be used, without violating the fast.  Then, a few years later, the same Pope reduced the duration of the fast from midnight to requiring those who wanted to receive Communion to not eat for three hours—in addition, he allowed the sick to drink something (not necessarily water) and to still remain eligible to receive Communion and to not violate the fast by doing so. Then, in 1964, Pope Paul VI reduced the Eucharistic fast to one hour, instead of the previous three-hour fast. Then, in the decree Immensae Caritatis (1973) issued by the proper Vatican congregation responsible for such matters, the sick, the elderly who are homebound or in nursing homes, as well as those who care for them need only to fast for fifteen minutes before receiving. 

 

Lent and Fasting

 

In the Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini, Pope St. Paul VI changed the traditional Lenten obligation of fasting for the entire forty days of Lent (except Sundays) reducing it to a two-day fast to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Abstinence was only mandated on Ash Wednesdays and all the Fridays of Lent. The Holy Father made it clear that divine law requires that all of the faithful do penance and that the revision was not meant to weaken penitential practice but to make it more effective. Then, he added, “while preserving—where it can be more can be more readily observed—the custom (observed for many centuries with canonical norms) of practicing penance also through abstinence from meat and fasting, intends to ratify with her prescriptions other forms of penance as well, provided that it seems opportune to episcopal conferences to replace the observance of fast and abstinence with exercises of prayer and works of charity” (Paenitemini III). The document notes that in fulfilling the requirement of abstinence, the eating meat is forbidden, “but not eggs, the products of milk or condiments made from animal fat.” Moreover, Paenitemini adds “The law of fasting allows only one full meal a day, but does not prohibit taking some food in the morning and evening, observing—as far as quantity and quality are concerned—approved local custom” (III.2). In response to that papal document, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued their Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence (18 November 1966). The bishops expressed their desire “that the observance of Lent as the principal season of penance in the Christian year be intensified.” The obligation “to fast and abstain from meat still binds” on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday is maintained and abstinence from meat on all the Fridays of Lent (PSPA, nn. 12-13). Then, instead of the former mandatory fasting on the weekdays of Lent, the nation’s bishops “strongly recommend participation in daily Mass and a self-imposed observance of fasting. In the light of grave human needs which weigh on the Christian conscience in all seasons, we urge, particularly during Lent, generosity to local, national, and world programs of sharing of all things needed to translate our duty to penance into a means of implementing the right of the poor to their part in our abundance. We also recommend spiritual studies, beginning with the Scriptures as well as the traditional Lenten Devotions (sermons, Stations of the Cross, and the rosary), and all the self-denial summed up in the Christian concept of ‘mortification’… Let us witness to our love and imitation of Christ, by special solicitude for the sick, the poor, the underprivileged, the imprisoned, the bedridden, the discouraged, the stranger, the lonely, and persons of other color, nationalities, or backgrounds than our own. A catalogue of not merely suggested but required good works under these headings is provided by Our Blessed Lord Himself in His description of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:34-40). This salutary word of the Lord is necessary for all the year, but should be heeded with double care during Lent” (PSPA, nn. 14-15). In his Lenten message for 2009, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI endorsed voluntary fasting, “Voluntary fasting enables us to grow in the spirit of the Good Samaritan, who bends low and goes to the help of his suffering brother. By freely embracing an act of self-denial for the sake of another, we make a statement that our brother or sister in need is not a stranger. It is precisely to keep alive this welcoming and attentive attitude towards our brothers and sisters that I encourage the parishes and every other community to intensify in Lent the custom of private and communal fasts, joined to the reading of the Word of God, prayer and almsgiving.” It’s worth considering!




 
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