Ash Wednesday

13 Feb 2013
 Les Ruhrmund

In Lent this year we could be giving some thought to how we can be more effective witnesses to our faith, in this Year of Faith. I have some practical suggestions that we could consider but before I get there, I think it’s worth revisiting the basics of Lent; the whys and wherefores.

Lent is preparation, body and soul, for the celebration of the great feast of Easter; the better the preparation, the better the celebration. Lent begins today and concludes on the evening of Holy Thursday at the start of the Triduum – the three days marking the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday.

As Catholics we are obliged to do penance throughout the season of Lent and today and all Fridays are days of abstinence from meat. Fasting on all weekdays during Lent is strongly recommended but is not obligatory. We seem to have lost that real sense of fast and abstinence during Lent. And yet these are ancient traditions of our faith and we should embrace them proudly. I’m always impressed how sincerely and completely my Moslem friends and colleagues keep the month of Ramadan and fast from eating and drinking, without complaint, from sunrise to sunset.

Pope Benedict spoke about the need for fasting at the beginning of Lent in 2009 saying “Denying material food, which nourishes our body, nurtures an interior disposition to listen to Christ and be fed by His saving word. Through fasting and praying, we allow Him to come and satisfy the deepest hunger that we experience in the depths of our being: the hunger and thirst for God.”

The liturgy of the Mass expresses this season of fast and abstinence during Lent; there are no flowers, there are no Alleluias, we don’t rejoice in the ‘Gloria’, and music is kept to a minimum; permitted only to sustain singing. The readings focus on temptation, trust in God, repentance, forgiveness and conversion; turning our lives more completely over to Christ. That always involves giving up sin in some form. The goal is not just to abstain from sin for the duration of Lent but to eliminate deep-rooted sin from our lives.

For each of us, the challenges are different because our typical sins are different. But we nevertheless journey together because we have a shared destination.

In a nutshell, Lent is a time for confession, fasting, abstinence, prayer and works of mercy.

Here are some suggestions for Lent using the three traditional pillars of Lenten observances: prayer, fasting and charity.

Prayer takes many forms but the objective is the same; to draw us into closer relationship with God. Prayer is the most intimate form of communication we have with God.

More prayer could mean:

  • Receiving the Blessed Sacrament more often during the week,
  • Reading Scripture (perhaps re-read the Gospels over the next 6 weeks);
  • Meditate on the Rosary;
  • Read Pope Benedict’s encyclicals on hope and love
  • Do a pilgrimage to one of the designated churches in Cape Town
  • Say a novena for the Church as she prepares to elect a new pope
  • Buy a book of spiritual readings for each day of Lent
  • Listen to some of the beautiful music that has been written to express our love for Christ (classical and modern)
  • Spend some time in the chapel of adoration
  • Join the community here on a Friday evening meditating on the Stations of the Cross
  • Participate in the mini-mission starting in the parish next Wednesday
  • Set up a prayer circle with friends that you each say the same prayer, at the same time, every day, no matter where you are.

To make this possible, we’re going to have to give some things up:

  • Sacrifice some idle time
  • Give up reading scandal mags
  • Less time surfing the net
  • Less television
  • Less pop music in our homes, cars and on our ipods
  • Less time trawling the malls

Fasting is next and this is often an aid to prayer.

Fasting is no just about eating less – although that’s a good place to start.

We could choose to give up eating a favourite food or drink. Or we could choose to give up a complete meal every day. The very awareness of our sacrifice should draw us to remember that we are in a time of purification and penance; draw us into prayer; remind us of our hunger for God. It is a time of deprivation; giving up meat while feasting on crayfish misses the point.

Abstaining from meat traditionally also reminds us of the poor, who can seldom afford meat for their meals; those who are forced to fast by their poverty.

But we can fast from other pleasures too.

We can fast from some entertainment, leisure or social activities; fast from shopping – buying only essential necessities for the next six weeks; fast from our favourite sitcom or favourite TV or radio program.

Through our sacrifices and fasting, we should have an excess – we should have saved food, money and time – and we should add that to our contributions to charity and almsgiving; food to the hungry, money to the Lenten Appeal and time to those in need of our company, counsel and comfort.

In Pope Benedict’s Lenten address for this year he addresses the question of faith and charity and says “Faith is knowing the truth and adhering to it; charity is “walking” in the truth. Through faith we enter into friendship with the Lord, through charity this friendship is lived and cultivated. Faith causes us to embrace the commandment of our Lord and Master; charity gives us the happiness of putting it into practice. Faith enables us to recognize the gifts that the good and generous God has entrusted to us; charity makes them fruitful.

“Sometimes we tend, in fact, to reduce the term “charity” to solidarity or simply humanitarian aid. It is important, however, to remember that the greatest work of charity is evangelization, which is the “ministry of the word”. There is no action more beneficial – and therefore more charitable – towards one’s neighbour than to break the bread of the word of God, to share the Good News of the Gospel, to introduce your neighbour to a relationship with God: evangelization is the highest and the most integral promotion of the human person.”

Lent invites us to nourish our faith and witness to our faith in our actions and words by receiving the sacraments, and at the same time to grow in charity and in love for God and neighbour, not least through the specific practices of fasting, prayer and almsgiving.

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