Lent and fasting: What are you giving up?

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fasting, woman with ash cross

I have to smile when people tell me they have “discovered” fasting. Like it was ever lost? Fasting is an ancient practice dating back to Moses or perhaps earlier. It is nothing new. Many people practice it regularly for their spiritual health more than their physical health.

In fact, fasting is on the minds of many people this month, especially Catholics, because we are about to enter the holy season of Lent. Beginning with Ash Wednesday on February 26, we enter a season of prayer and penance, and yes, this includes fasting.

Ash to ashes, dust to dust

We start the season by receiving a cross of ashes on our foreheads to remind us we aren’t going to live forever. We should especially think about this truth over the next 40 days and adjust our lives accordingly. Lent culminates with the celebration of Easter, the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Originally, penitents would dress in sackcloth and pour ashes on their heads during Lent. However, the Church has simplified this, thankfully, to a smear of ash in the shape of a cross on the forehead at the beginning of the season. This practice is centuries old, but I am still surprised on Ash Wednesday when people tell me I have a smudge of dirt on my face.

Getting ready for Lent

The last day before Lent begins is Mardi Gras, which means “fat Tuesday.” This has become an entire week of excess and debauchery that really has nothing to do with Lent. It is also called faschnaut day, or donut day, because devout families would use up their sugar and lard before the solemn fast so it would not go to waste. Fewer people refer to the day before Ash Wednesday as Shrove Tuesday, the day in which we are “shriven,” or pardoned through the sacrament of Confession.

I often hear the question, “What are you giving up for Lent?” This can be a difficult question to answer. The penances we choose can be quite personal, related to sins we are struggling to overcome or private battles we may be fighting. So if you ask a Catholic this question and she shrugs and says, “I don’t know. Probably chocolate (or wine or TV or whatever), you can bet there is something deeper going on.

But what about fasting?

The Church is really pretty easy on us Catholics. Fasting for 40 days can seem daunting and harsh, even for those who embrace fasting for health reasons. However, the obligation to fast only includes Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (the day commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus). We respectfully abstain from meat as a church on all the Fridays in Lent. For the rest of the days, we are free to choose our own sacrifices, which often include fasting.

On the required days of fasting, we are permitted to eat one normal meal and two smaller meals. This never really feels like fasting to me, but this is the least the Church requires. Many devout Catholics fast until supper, a form of “intermittent fasting.”

What’s the big deal?

Fasting is not only a means of performing penance, it is also a method of self-mastery. Too often, our appetites control us. I am not proud of the fact that I lash out at my husband when I get hungry and I pout when the dinner choices disappoint me. By denying my appetite the control it has over me, I can strengthen my will to say no to other appetites, such as sin. It is a form of self-control that has benefits far beyond a trim waste and clear skin.

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