[NB: This is a revision to an article I wrote for the diocese of Saginaw a number of years ago. I think it still holds value.]
One perceived strength in our present discipline for Lent is its call to maturity. The minimal penance we are invited to do (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as the two days of fasting, Fridays as weekly abstinence from meat products), leaves the type of fasting and penance in between up to the mature Catholic. The focus is on conversion of heart, not the strenuousness of the penance. That approach can be very meaningful and creative to a person or a community of faith who takes the Lenten season seriously. Unfortunately, and unintentionally, the present discipline gets easily overwhelmed by our culture’s individualism. If I fast or do penance during the rest of Lent at all, I often do it “my way,” for “my own reasons,” to make “myself” a better person. A perfect example of this are the yearly requests that ashes be available throughout the day of Ash Wednesday in the church, so that people can come in at any time and place ashes on their forehead. And some parishes do this! How sad. Ashes become another individual, privatized commodity, when the whole point of Ash Wednesday is the requirement that we gather as a community, in public, together; we listen to the gospel about how only hypocrites let others know they are fasting, praying or giving alms; and then we proceed to acknowledge and make our ourselves hypocrites by having ashes placed on our foreheads by another! It is not just that we know we fall short personally. It is another who is saying to us: "You are a hypocrite! Repent!" We then go out into the public with those ashes so that the whole world can see that know ourselves to be hypocrites, an entire community of faith who falls short in our living out the gospel of Jesus Christ. How might we better embrace this true, communal meaning of Lent?
One way might be by going back to the practice of fasting every day of Lent, not just on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday. Fasting every day, I remember my father using a small scale to make sure that the small amount of food he ate at breakfast or lunch was not equivalent to the allowed one full, main meal. There was a strong sense of Catholic identity, but underneath that, I do not know that there was a real communal sense to why we were doing the penance. The focus seemed to be on endurance and proving that I/we could give up sufficient foods or other pleasures for that length of time, as though penance in and of itself was a sufficient good. Beneath the fasting and abstinence there was also a worry that we might be sinning, if we did not keep the season properly. All of this really missed the point and became, in practice, just another way of focusing on oneself.
On that score, the Muslim season of Ramadan and its way of fasting seems far more interesting and powerful to me than our own current or past Catholic ways of doing penance during Lent. Ramadan involves a fast that is clear and very demanding (no food or liquids from sunrise to sunset but with exceptions allowed), but that fasting is not an end it itself. The goal is both repentance and communal renewal. That is why, before sunrise or after sunset, one may partake of as much food and drink as one wishes, and communal gatherings and celebrations are strongly encouraged after the sun goes down. This type of penance produces an undeniably strong communal bond to that holy season and puts the emphasis on strengthening communal identity and bonding.
We may have something to re-learn here with our own Lenten fast and penance. One strength of our former daily Lenten fast, as mentioned, was the shared communal story and the Catholic identity this season could forge. Whether 100% faithful to the fast or not, Catholics existed in “Lenten time” and not simply February or March secular time. We need to re-claim that experience as a positive one. At the same time, we do not want to make penance some type of endurance test or think that we have sinned because we have not followed the fasting or abstinence rules completely. How might we combine that earlier strength with the more mature approach to Lenten penance the current discipline invites us to?
I think it would be a fair generalization to say that in Scripture fasting is ordinarily a communal event. The community changes for the good, not just the individual. From a faith perspective, it makes little sense to fast unless one is fasting with others or for the good of others. To fast when the whole community fasts is to re-interpret our time and enter into the community’s “faith time”. We fast and do penance during Lent so that our identity as a community of disciples of Jesus is strengthened. We fast as a community, we pray for one another and support one another, so that those who need to be reconciled to this community, and those who are preparing for full initiation into the community, find a pilgrim people--a people who hunger for God, for God’s Word, for God’s mercy. We fast, pray and give of ourselves (almsgiving) because we experience ourselves in solidarity with the world, its brokenness, its need for healing, for wholeness, for peace and justice.
I realize that health gurus might encourage fasting for health reasons, but we miss the point, if it is simply our journey alone or for some individual health benefit (even a spiritual one). During Lent we do not fast simply for ourselves or to achieve something for ourselves. Lenten penance (whether through fasting or some other way) is certainly not about trying to break a habit of eating, drinking, smoking, TV, etc. and prove we are not controlled by such things. Nor is Lenten penance simply about improving our relationship with God, though that does happen. It is not about me or you. We fast for the Christian community’s and the world’s sake, not for our sake. The community of faith asks us to fast, to mark time in a different way, to enter into “Lenten time " together, so that all we do and say gets viewed through and transformed by that lens of shared communal Lenten time. Lent is a season of shared penance, which in turn forges our communal identity and purpose.
What about this modest proposal? Move away from promoting Lent primarily on the grounds of the “personal spiritual benefits” that can happen. Move toward emphasizing our shared time, our shared story, our bonding as a pilgrim people who hunger for God and are willing to put the healing of the world ahead of our own desires. Why not identify ourselves as such a people? Not simply by taking ashes on Ash Wednesday; not simply by minimally abstaining from meat on Fridays of Lent and fasting two days; but through some type of penance over and above that, each day of Lent. In turn, embrace that penance not simply as a personal penance but as part of a communal responsibility. Do it for the community not for oneself--be it the family, parish, diocese, universal church, or world. It would not carry any sense of sinfulness were one to fail in keeping the daily penance, but more a sense of letting the community down. In addition, maybe we can learn from our Muslim brothers and sisters how to not let that penance be an end in itself, but a form of community bonding, by truly making our Sunday gatherings joyful during Lent, recapturing the idea that there is to be no fasting on the Lord's Day. Rather, Sunday is to be a day of community celebration. Don't take away food, refreshments, and time for conversation after every Sunday Mass. Add to them!
During the season of Lent, we need to expect more than just a bare minimum from ourselves as Christian faithful. Two days of fasting? No, the whole season! Friday only penance? No, every day, done not for ourselves but for the good of the community. The end result? It is hard to tell. We do not become “good Catholics” because we do penance in this manner. But over the years a greater sense of shared identity and shared story may be forged—we are in this together! The Lenten season marks and strengthens us as a community that interprets time and history a bit differently from the culture around us. It may help us risk entering more wholeheartedly into The Story: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Let’s try it.