Ash Wednesday and the Lenten Season, Fasting and Abstinence

Today is Ash Wednesday, the very first day and the beginning of Lent. What is Lent? and why is it 40 days long? Lent is the season, the time when we prepare ourselves, and make ourselves truly worthy to celebrate and commemorate the most important event in our year, that is the Holy Week, when we will remember Christ’s Passion and death, His great Sacrifice for our sake on the cross, and ultimately through His resurrection, we have hope of eternal life.

In order to be able to properly and fully celebrate the important Holy Week, this is why we prepare ourselves, in this 40 days of Lenten season. Why 40? Because 40 has long been associated in the Bible as the symbol of suffering, of waiting, and of purification, to prepare someone or a group of people for the ultimate end, happiness as given by God.

The people of Israel after being freed from slavery in Egypt, had to wonder for 40 years before reaching the Promised Land, after they rejected the Lord and His assurance, fearing instead the Canaanites whose presence terrified the Israelites and made them to complain that they would have had better life back where they were in slavery. The 40 years of journey through the desert is to root out all the dissidents, all of them who died, except the two, including Joshua, who surveyed the Promised Land and stayed faithful to God’s promise.

Elijah travelled for 40 days to the mountain of the Lord after being chased and persecuted by King Ahab of Israel. There Elijah met the Lord, who gave him renewed strength and courage to return and face King Ahab, and bring forth the Lord back to the people of Israel, delivering them from the worship of pagan gods.

Then ultimately, Christ Himself, fasted for 40 days and nights in the desert, and was tempted thrice by the devil. This happened after His baptism by John the Baptist and before He began His ministry in this world. He resisted all temptations of the devil and rebuked him for his insolence against the Lord. This 40 days is therefore representative of the same kind of time of preparation and of purification before something great and holy is begun.

Therefore, we too, are called in, these 40 days, to also prepare ourselves, spiritually in particular, for the celebration of our Lord’s Passion and death. To facilitate this, the Church has instituted Ash Wednesday as the beginning of the Lenten season, where ashes are imposed on the forehead of the faithful, and also the rules on fasting and abstinence.

Why ash? Ash is the symbolism of nothingness, and a reminder of dust where we came from. God created Adam, the first man out of earth and dust, and as Adam, and indeed other human dies, their bodies turn back into dust, into nothingness, though the soul remains. This is to remind us that our earthly life is just temporary, and that we should not do what is futile in this world, that is to seek worldly power and wealth, and dedicate our entire life for these, as in the end, we are nothing before God. This ash symbolises the great humility that we took upon, before the throne of God, asking for His great mercy.

Fasting refers to the practice of eating only a single full meal in the day, and with up to two ‘snacks’ or also commonly known as ‘collations’, which purpose is for physical discipline, to help us to prepare ourselves spiritually through the rejection of worldly temptations in the form of food and good things, that we can truly focus ourselves fully on the Lord. In the past, we used to fast much more often than now, as in the present, we are actually only required to fast on Ash Wednesday, and Good Friday itself.

Meanwhile, abstinence refer to the practice of, traditionally, shunning meat from all meals of the day, which is similar in intent to fasting, except that one does not need to limit the meal to just one meal and maximum of two snacks, but simply abstain from eating meat for that day. Traditionally too, this is done every Friday during Lent. However, in fact, we can also abstain from other things, even non-food items. We can abstain from things that occupy us the most, and even those we are addicted to. These practices, if we do them correctly and meaningfully, will only make us more prepared and ready for the commemoration of our Lord’s great Sacrifice and Resurrection, which is 40 days from now.

May God bless us all during this Lenten season, and I wish you all, happy Lent and have a great and fruitful season of recollection and repentance this Lent!

Wednesday, 13 February 2013 : Ash Wednesday (Psalm)

Psalm 50 : 3-4, 5-6a, 12-13, 14 and 17

Have mercy on me, o God, in Your love. In Your great compassion blot out my sin. Wash me thoroughly of my guilt; cleanse me of evil.

For I acknowledge my wrongdoings and have my sins ever in mind. Against You alone have I sinned; what is evil in Your sight I have done.

Create in me, o God, a pure heart; give me a new and steadfast spirit. Do not cast me out of Your presence nor take Your Holy Spirit from me.

Give me again the joy of Your salvation and sustain me with a willing spirit. O Lord, open my lips, and I will declare Your praise.