With the coming of Ash Wednesday, and its sobering reminder — “Remember, O man, that thou art dust: and unto dust, thou shalt return” — solemnly recited as we are marked with ashes upon the forehead, we embark upon the season of self-examination and penitence known as Lent.
The linked article comments,
Easter, the Day of the Resurrection, is the most important celebration of the Church. From the beginning, the Church observed a period of fasting before Easter to prepare for the feast.
This season of fasting was eventually lengthened to forty days to correspond to the forty day fasts in the Bible: The fast of Jesus in the wilderness before he was tempted by the devil (Matt. 4:1), the fast of Moses on Mt. Sinai while he was receiving the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28) and the fast of Elijah when he fled from Jezebel (1 Kings 19:8).
The Sundays of Lent are not counted as days of fasting. It is forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter if we do not count the Sundays. The church observes Sunday perpetually as the Day of Resurrection. The lenten Sundays are properly observed as a slight relaxation of the fast, a slight anticipation of Easter, but not a full party.
It is often said, these days, that one need not give something up for Lent, but rather take something on. This is true, to a point, and some of the things we might appropriately take on are discussed in the linked essay. But this should not become an excuse for laxity in the fast, either! The Lenten fast (details below) is itself important. Furthermore, some of us already have lives over-stuffed with things to do; Lent can be a time to step back from doing – again, if this does not lead to laxity.
The keystone is found here:
“We decrease our intake of food, pleasure and entertainment and increase our practice of spiritual disciplines. This helps us to focus less on selfish concerns and more on our relationship with God.”
The essay then goes on to give us some specific guidelines for our Lenten abstinence, both traditional and contemporary: “the general rule for Lent that has come down to us in our tradition is this: Each day consists of one full meal and two smaller portions of food. Wednesdays and Fridays in Lent are days of abstinence from flesh meat. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of complete fasting. No food is eaten until sundown. Medical issues and age are reasons to moderate the fast of food.
“We ought also to abstain from other foods, pleasures and entertainments for the forty days in keeping with the spirit of the season. Consumption of alcohol and desserts should be eliminated. The lenten fast should also include things that occupy too large a place in our lives and run the danger of becoming idols. It is essential, in our time, that the lenten fast include electronics and media. We should reduce the amount of time spent with the computer, T.V., radio, iPod and other media in order to create an atmosphere of silence and stillness that is conducive to prayer.”
This is indeed true, in our current age of constant bombardment by sensory stimuli. Our senses – sight and hearing, in particular – and our mental faculties, including both cognition and reflection, are under constant assault by electronically-mediated pseudo-experiences in these days. Many of us spend all too much time in what amounts to a “virtual reality” bubble! Silence and stillness, conducive not only to active prayer but to contemplation and reflection, are in short supply, and often require a conscious effort to attain. Lent is a time when it is especially appropriate to make that effort.
The essay then goes on to suggest things we may appropriately take on, as part of, or complementary to, our Lenten fast, including prayer, Bible reading, confession, and of course, good works.
One important point to note, that is not always realized: “The Sundays of Lent are not counted as days of fasting. It is forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter if we do not count the Sundays. The church observes Sunday perpetually as the Day of Resurrection. The lenten Sundays are properly observed as a slight relaxation of the fast, a slight anticipation of Easter, but not a full party.” Sundays, penitential season or not, are always Feasts of Our Lord, min-commemorations of Easter, and thus not fast days. Though as this points out, that doesn’t mean they should be viewed as occasions of excess, either!
In this as in so much else in life, a right balance is essential. Lent helps us to practice that balance, or return to it if we have fallen away.