The Spirit of the Fast

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the great fast of Lent. This is the most severe of all of the Church’s times of fasting and abstinence. From the time that we rise from sleep, we customarily take no food or flavoured drink, consuming only water until the canonical hour of None (3pm), which is the final office of the day. From that point forward, we take one meal of a single course only, being careful to abstain from animal products and from wine.

Perhaps never has the observance of fasting and abstinence been easier. With ready access to fresh fruit and vegetables, water bottles on the go, and the explosion of vegetarian and vegan-friendly foodstuffs and recipes, we have little cause for complaint. However, while the actual doing of the thing might be easy, what might pose a challenge for us is keeping the spirit of the fast.

Of course, the fast is not an end in itself and should not give rise to scrutinising food labels to ensure that what we purchase contains not the slightest trace of buttermilk or that it never came into contact with a fermented grape. Such a hyper-legalistic approach could be said to be far more sinful than not observing the fast at all. Rather, fasting & abstinence are spiritual tools provided to us by the Church to inculcate a spirit of detachment from worldly things – even those things which are good for us but which can form a distraction – and refocus our minds and our hearts on the things that pertain to our salvation: prayerful communion with God and love of our neighbour.

Perhaps one of the most important things that we ought to bear in mind is that our lenten discipline is just that – our own – and that is where our focus ought to be. It is for our own sins that we are doing penance, and it is for our own spiritual growth that we are denying ourselves some of the pleasures we usually enjoy. Unless we are a spiritual advisor or parish clergy, we should not have any interest in the lenten discipline of others, comparing ourselves to them to see who is more observant. If we find ourselves about to ask someone, ‘What are you giving up for Lent?’ we should stop and ask ourselves why we are asking such a personal question and consider whether we really need to know the answer.

Our fasting is not something in which we are to take pride or which we are to show off before others. We should not grumble in discomfort in order to draw attention to ourselves or complain about how much we miss bacon, and if we are offered some food or a snack as a friendly gesture, we should politely decline – there is not usually any need to say ‘I’m fasting’ unless the person offering is insistent or might be hurt if we decline without explanation. Rather, we are to undertake the fast willingly and gladly, and with an attitude of humility, in such a way that nobody should even notice or think to comment on it.

‘When you fast, do not become glum-faced like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so that people will see they are fasting. Truly I tell you they have their reward. But when you are fasting, anoint your head and wash your face, that you may not be seen fasting by people but by your Father who is in secret. Then your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you openly.

‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and corrosion destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor corrosion destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’

Jesus Christ (Matthew 6: 16-21)

We begin this season of Lent with the custom of receiving ashes upon our heads. This is a sign of sorrow for our sins and a reminder of our mortality, and has a firm basis in examples from Holy Scripture (Job 2: 12; Joshua 7: 6; Lamentations 2: 10; Ezekiel 27: 30). We carry this practice forward in the New Testament Church each year when we begin the great fast.

It might be beneficial to note that, across liturgical rites, the traditional rubrics call for the ashes to be placed upon the head and do not call for any visible mark to be made on the face. This traditional practice is the custom followed at our parish. For, as in the examples from Holy Scripture, it is in the act of sprinkling the dust and ash on the head that we express sorrow for our sins, and not in any lasting mark to be displayed to other people, so they may know that we have done so.

Nonetheless, in modern practice (especially in the anglophone world), “upon the head” is often interpreted to refer to the forehead. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this custom. However, if this method is to be employed we should do it in the same spirit of humility, remembering that this is an act of penitence, and not something for display before others. We should avoid the temptation to add oil to the ash to form a dark paste, with the deliberate intention of making a lasting, visible mark for others to see. As for the trend of posing for photographs to show off our ashen mark on social media, this is so far removed from the spirit of the fast that it hardly requires further comment.

If we wish for others to be inspired by our piety, then we should allow that to happen naturally, by true conversion of heart, love of God and love of neighbour, manifested in our lives. If we are truly filled with the love and light of Christ, then people will naturally come to see the effects of that in our lives, and unwittingly, we might bring others to salvation in Christ.

You are the light of the world. A city situated on a hill cannot be hidden. People do not light a lamp and put it under a bucket, but on the lamp stand, and it shines for all who are in the house. Let your light shine before people in such a way that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in the heavens.

Jesus Christ (Matthew 5: 14-16)

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