Why don’t we eat much on Ash Wednesday?
Even before Jesus’ time, the people of God understood the importance of an ongoing effort to be cleansed of sin – and this effort has long been connected to the practice of some form of suitable penance. The prophet Joel proclaimed on behalf of the Lord, “return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning – rend your hearts, not your garments” (Joel 2:12). At the heart of Jesus’ message is a call to repentance: a turning away from sin and toward God (Mt 4:17, Lk 5:32, Acts 2:38). The season of Lent is a time to cleanse our hearts in order to better experience the glory of Easter Sunday. This is an annual opportunity for us to take an honest look at where we have fallen short in our relationship with God and which areas in our life need healing and change. Drawing upon the wisdom of the centuries, the Church continues to strongly encourage Catholics to include some form of reasonable penance in their ongoing efforts to grow in their faith. Just as a detox cleanse can have extreme benefits for our physical health, so too can the practice of fasting and abstinence greatly benefit our spiritual health – but only if it is attached to prayer and good works. Because of this, the Church has set a few standards as a minimum in order to challenge us to reap the spiritual benefit of penance. All Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 are challenged to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, meaning that one full meal and two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal are permitted. In addition, all Catholics above the age of 14 are required to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of Lent. Of course, those who have valid health concerns are exempt from these obligations. Remember that this is a minimum requirement and that the spiritual benefit is reaped only if it is attached to a sincere desire to turn away from sin and toward God. If we are merely following rules, then we will all be grumpy, hungry, and tired. But what if we all took this opportunity to prepare our hearts for the glory of God?