“…If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:23 RSV
Contrary to our desires for comfort and pleasure, the Bible talks repeatedly about dying to ourselves and our fleshly desires (I was going to type the verses out, but a quick Google search revealed that someone else has already putting in the work of typing them all out—thank you!) Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. The 40-day Lenten season is the time in our liturgical year when we deny ourselves. We answer Christ’s call to take up our own crosses and follow Him on His journey to the cross. Our small crosses take the form of abstaining from meat on Fridays, spending extra time in devotions (such as Stations of the Cross), giving extra alms, or giving extra time to others. Today on Ash Wednesday and again on Good Friday, we will also fast.
Some people are not encouraged to fast during this time, including children, those who are ill, pregnant, and breastfeeding women. For the past several years, as the rest of the Church fasted from food, I ate only what I felt was required for my nutritional needs and abstained from other distractions, like the tv/internet. I can tell you that although it is good to rid myself from those distractions, there is something particularly powerful about fasting. This year, my baby is 11 months old and eating some solid food. I know that fasting for one day will not harm me. The Church is very lenient on the definition of a “fast” as two partial meals and one regular meal. I allow my younger children to eat their regular meals and healthy snacks today, but allow no meat, desserts, or “fun stuff”. Just basic foods that will meet their nutritional requirements. The idea behind fasting is to increase self-discipline, to learn to crucify our fleshly desires, to take our eyes off the things of this world and focus on God, as penance to show sorrow for our sins, and to increase our awareness of others in the world who are less fortunate. Today, as my stomach growls, I think of those people in the world who have to live with much less on a daily basis. I realize how spoiled and comfortable I have become. I think of the mothers who have to live every single day worrying about what they are going to feed their children.
What does the Bible say about fasting?
But why do we abstain from meat on Fridays? The simple answer is that Friday was the day that our Lord sacrificed His flesh and blood for us. We make a small sacrifice by abstaining from flesh on Friday. It’s much the same idea as fasting. For some of us, like myself, not eating meat is not much of a sacrifice. So I will also abstain from all sweets on Fridays during Lent. Since fish and seafood is allowed, I also have to ask myself…how much of a sacrifice is it for me to eat a fried catfish dinner or sushi? I try to follow the spirit of the law, rather than just the letter of the law.
“Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same thought, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin…” (1 Peter 4:1)
Are lenten practices adding to the work of the cross? Does Jesus need my efforts or works? No. I cannot add to the cross (and by the same token, neither can my works detract from the work of the cross). I don't read my Bible or pray or go to Church or [insert good work] because Jesus needs those things. I do because *I* need them. They strengthen me. Jesus has given me these opportunities for my own good, because He wants me to grow. What causes me to grow more spiritually and to more effectively spread the gospel...to stay where I am comfortable? Or to learn to crucify my fleshly desires and discipline myself? Since discipline takes effort, and I'm inclined to be stubborn and lazy, I welcome a nudge in that direction. Lent is always a time that shakes me out of my comfort zone. Observing Lent has always drawn me closer to God. It makes the celebration of Easter much more powerful. The joy of the Resurrection is so much sweeter after we’ve reflected on the sorrows of Christ’s passion!