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Even when Easter is relatively late in the calendar, somehow it always seems as if Ash Wednesday creeps up on us when we least expect it. Still, the flowers are gone, the alleluias are withheld and green has given way to purple. Invariably, many of us find ourselves feeling unprepared, and either scramble to come up with a creative way to observe the season, or decide to fall back on practices we have done in the past.
I know people who give up the same thing every year--usually pizza, coffee, chocolate or sweets. But every year, too, there seems to be a kind of fashionable take on Lent that often focuses more on good things we might add to our lives rather than the not-so-good things we might eliminate. Most Catholics I know try to do a little bit of both. They give up something they know isn’t good for them, and attempt to do a little extra in terms of prayer, spiritual development, or charitable giving.
When I was a child I loved Lent--even though I wasn’t Catholic. I never had trouble staying faithful to my chosen sacrifices, whatever they were. But in recent years, I have to admit that I’ve grown soft. I do what is required, and attempt to do more, but lately I’ve found myself floundering earlier and earlier in the season. Perhaps that is why I feel so divided between forcing myself to more extreme disciplines (heck, just about anything would more extreme and more disciplined!), or reconciling my pride to the spiritual wimp I’ve become.
I thought that maybe additional preparation for Lent would help. In order to ratchet things up this year, I decided to do a little research into traditional Lenten practices in our Eastern Churches. The requirements are pretty much the same as those for Latin rite Catholics. But the fasting and abstinence traditions that developed historically among devout Eastern Catholics really made me think. Here’s why.
For our brothers and sisters in the Eastern traditions, a strict fast involves not eating solid foods between midnight and noon the following day. Abstinence is defined as refraining not only from meat, but dairy products, eggs, alcohol, fish and in some places even olive oil. The traditional Lent meant six weeks of both fasting and abstinence. Of course, even the Eastern faithful have relaxed their practices just as we have in the West. But the customary “compromises” look like anything but compromising when compared to how we tend to observe Lent. Many Eastern Christians keep the first, middle, and last weeks of Lent strictly, and then relax the weeks in between. Some abstain from meat for all 40 days. Others abstain from meat on all Wednesdays and Fridays of the season.
As a family we try to keep Fridays meatless throughout the year, except in the Easter and Christmas seasons. But deep inside, I wish I could commit myself to any one of those Eastern Catholic “compromises” believing that I could actually keep it. The truth is that somewhere, sometime, I lost the motivation that would make that kind of observance possible.
When I think about it, perhaps I never had it to begin with. Maybe it is because I have always seen Lenten disciplines as ends in themselves. Asceticism for the sake of asceticism gets old, even when you practice it well. There has to be a better reason. Underneath it, I know that fasting isn’t in order to lose weight, or to become healthier, to simply gain self-control, or even to practice solidarity with those who are poor. While all those things may accompany Lenten disciplines, they are not what Lent is for.
The purpose of Lent is Easter. Everything we do, everything we give or give up, every extra prayer or act of kindness directs us to the suffering, death, and most importantly, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Preparing for Lent is, in the end, as silly a notion as preparing for Advent would be. Lent is itself a season of preparation. The great fast exists only for the sake of the Greatest Feast.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an author, speaker, musician and serves as Faith Formation Coordinator at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Lynnfield.