When the news reached the king of Ninevah, he rose from his throne, took off his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he had the word cried through Ninevah: “By decree of the king and his nobles: No man or beast— of flock or herd— shall taste anything! They shall not graze, and they shall not drink water! They shall be covered with sackcloth— man and beast— and shall cry mightily to God. Let everyone turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty.”
I’m not sure exactly when I started fasting on Ash Wednesday, but I know it became something very different at Notre Dame.
For one thing, as a crazy college student, I was something of a night owl. I stayed up very late, and slept accordingly late. I was used to staying in LaFortune until Starbucks closed down around 2:00am. As such, my fasting would begin at midnight. I’d join my friends for one last snack around 11:00 and then no food until the next midnight.
As soon as the clock ticked over onto 12:00am Thursday morning, I would join my friends in a quarter dog feast. We would sit with our hot dogs, Huddle candy and sugary drinks and celebrate being allowed to eat again.
We’ve all heard the charge that Catholics are wimpy in how we fast. There are two official fast days for Catholics, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Unlike our Jewish and Muslim friends, Catholics eat three meals on fast days; they just aren’t full meals. Maybe it’s more like one simple meal and two snacks.
As a part of the Lenten fast, Catholics do give abstain from certain foods on all Fridays in Lent. We don’t eat meat… but we do eat fish and dairy.
The restrictions are less than they used to be. In the middle ages, meat and dairy was forgone for the entirety of Lent. Many cultures continued that custom for centuries, and it is as a result that the Tuesday before Lent is still celebrated with pancakes, pączki or other goodies that use up the last of the eggs and butter. On fast days in the middle ages, only one meal was eaten, and it could not be eaten until the evening. Those restrictions gradually loosened until we ended up where we are today: less food on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, no meat on Fridays and the ubiquitous “What are you giving up for Lent?”
Today we are encouraged to “fast” from more than food. Are you fasting from your iPod? From Facebook? Are you not drinking soda? Are you attempting to eat more healthfully? Today’s fasts are often focused on self-improvement. It’s as though Catholics pursue Lenten Resolutions in lieu of the New Year’s Resolutions they’ve neglected.
Which brings us to the question: why ARE we supposed to fast?
There are a few different ways to look at it, but most of them come down to penance and conversion. We fast because we are outwardly acting upon an inward regret for our sin. We give up something good, something necessary, because we recognize the need to turn to God. It is a sacrifice in his name. We wish to remind ourselves that we are entirely, completely reliant upon the Lord and his mercy.
So what was I missing when I followed the letter of the law about fasting back in college? Well, I wasn’t doing anything wrong. My thoughts were focused away from myself and onto Someone greater when I walked past Reckers without popping in. I was building Christian community when I shared a midnight meal with my friends. These are good things.
We’re reminded, however, that we are called to individual penance during Lent. We alone know what we have done that hasn’t lived up to God’s calling, and we alone know how we feel called to respond.
During Lent, we have the opportunity to challenge ourselves and to draw nourishment from the Lord in new ways.
So what are you giving up for Lent?