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Ash Wednesday: Reflections on Fasting, Prayer and Almsgiving

by Stephen Lynch

Ashes_2Ash Wednesday ushers in the season of Lent. Last year’s palms become this year’s ashes. Ashes stand as a common denominator for us all, symbolizing human frailty, spiritual brokenness and the need for repentance and healing. Sin brings death and ashes.

In Catholic churches around the world, Lent begins by tracing of the Sign of the Cross with ashes on the forehead of believers. For many centuries, priests distributed ashes with the words: “Remember thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” (Gen. 3:19) God spoke similar words to Adam and Eve when he expelled them from the Garden of Paradise because they had disobeyed the Divine command forbidding them to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. If obedience is a sign of our love for God, disobedience is a sign of non-love.

A new 20th century formula for applying ashes brings out the need for true conversion: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” Ashes remind us of two things: our roots in the soil — God fashioned Adam out of the dust of the earth; death comes to all — earthly life is passing. If ashes symbolize “Paradise Lost,” the Sign of the Cross symbolizes “Paradise Regained.”

From the first to the third century, fasting keynoted Lent. Originally, the fast was very strict. Only one meal a day toward evening was allowed. From the fourth until the ninth century, the Church extended the fast to 40 days. This fast was called quadragesima, the Latin word meaning 40.

From the ninth until the 15th century, the Church permitted a gradual relaxation of the strict rules about fasting from food and drink. The practice of fasting from food and drink gradually shifted to abstaining from evil deeds, increasing good works and focusing on personal spiritual renewal. This trend brought greater emphasis on other forms of penitential works such as self-control, deeper prayer, works of compassion, service and almsgiving. Lenten practices evolved from “what am I doing for myself” to “what am I doing for my neighbor.” Now, in the 20th century, fasting has been reduced to only two days in Lent: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Theology of Lent
To understand Lent, one must understand the biblical view of the heart. The heart stands as the center of a person’s inner life, the chief bodily focus of emotional activity, and the source of one’s spiritual activities. The heart is often used to signify the mind or the human will. Two powerful forces are at work in our heart and in our world: the force of good and the force of evil. St. Paul warns us that the human heart pulls us in both good and evil directions. This pull within the heart becomes the source of both personal goodness and moral frailty. Paul himself is constantly struggling to resist evil and do what is right. He agonizes over this inner conflict between the good and evil propensities in his heart. Paul cries out in distress: “I do not the good I want to do; instead, I do the evil I do not want to do.” Christianity as a way of life depends much more on what’s going on in the heart than in the head. “Faith in the heart leads to justification.” (Rom.10) Jesus teaches that repentance and spiritual conversion come through fasting, prayer and almsgiving.

Fasting is part of the spirituality of all religions. It implies exercising self-control; prayer implies God-centeredness; almsgiving implies neighbor-centeredness, expressed by loving service. Self-denial is good for both the soul and body because it develops self-control and self-discipline. Human growth and maturity demand self-discipline. Athletes who compete in sports know the need for self-discipline and intensive training for both mind and body. In a close competition, often the person with the greatest capacity for concentration on the goal gains the victory. St. Paul tells us that “athletes deny themselves all sorts of things. They do this to win a crown of leaves that wither. But we, a crown that is imperishable.” (1 Cor. 9-25) Live moderately; control your tongue, speech and appetite. Lent also calls us to neighbor-centeredness. Cultivate virtues such as kindness and compassion. Avoid harsh and unkind judgments. Be sensitive to a neighbor’s needs, be forgiving, open-minded and accepting of differences.

The Prophet Isaiah reminds us that fasting also includes freeing others from their burdens, sharing what you have with others, caring for the oppressed, and not turning your back on people who need you. When you live in this way: “Your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wounds shall quickly be healed.” (Is. 58:8) Penance needs to be expressed in acts of atonement and self-discipline.

Prayer, according to Jesus, has great power. Prayer brings God’s grace which empowers us to resist evil and do good. Take a few minutes of quiet time each day during Lent to get in touch with the Spirit of God present at the core of your being. Psalm 46 reminds us: “Be still, and know that I am God.” Attending a weekday Mass once a week during Lent is another powerful form of prayer, because it keeps the Eucharist as the center of your prayer life and deepens your communion with God. That is why we call receiving the Eucharist “Holy Communion.” How we choose to live in this world determines what our eternity will be like. God speaks to us in the inspired words of Deuteronomy: “Today I set before you life and death; a blessing and a curse. Choose life.” (Dt. 30:15)

Almsgiving has special spiritual value, because it expresses love of neighbor through compassion and self-giving service. We meet God in our neighbor. Pope St. Leo the Great advises: “Prayer has the greatest efficacy to obtain favors from God when it is supported by works of mercy, such as alms-giving.” By helping someone else, you really help yourself. The Bible teaches three main ways to give of yourself for the sake of your neighbor: 1) you can give your time, 2) your talents, 3) or your possessions for the sake of helping another. Through your generosity and kindness to others, through your prayer and self-denial, you reflect the hope and joy of the Easter message that we are saved through God’s love expressed in Jesus Christ.

Lent calls us to God-centeredness. Jesus hanging there on the cross is a sign not only of forgiveness of sin, but of atonement for sin. Jesus Christ teaches us the value of prayer and fasting in order to gain self-control and self-discipline. Let the words of the prophet Joel guide your spiritual journey during Lent: “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning for your sins. Rend your hearts, and not your garments, says the Lord God Almighty.” (Joel 2. 12:2) The prophet Micah sums up what God requires of us: The Lord has told us what is good and what He requires, namely, to do what is just; to love tenderly; and to walk humbly with your God.” (Mic. 6:8)

–Fr, Stephen lives in Providence, R.I., where he writes frequent reflections about the Church’s s history and traditions.