In our health, wealth and beauty conscious age, fasting might not hold the same meaning as it did for a more religiously inclined society, where the contrast between fast days and feast days helped people appreciate the meaning of the festival as well as appreciate the bounty nature can give us in it seasonal round. A student friend remarked that the ancient practice and discipline of fasting was what a number of people did today either because of health concerns or because they lived very rushed lives so that a one main meal a day policy was their norm! Of course we have also to think of those whose poverty and deprivation place them into another world where fasting becomes starvation and it has little to do with spirituality or seeking God, only dire want and deep necessity.
So I have been wrangling over the meaning of Lent and what disciplines may help me (and those like me engaged in a Christian journey) within a safe and almost too comfortable environment. Does Lent mean much with all the alternative diets and therapies, am I secretly, a white-older-man, using Lent to tone up my body and reduce weight by using the framework such a season supplies? Perhaps! But my hope is that in all the muddle my life provides I have enough strength of will to dig deeper into my faith and see Lent as a positive time that can bring me new and varied experiences.
One of the ways I find helpful is to start a countdown, now this is not unique, in our Melkite Byzantine Church we follow the Orthodox practice that does it for me by signaling the coming of Lent by naming the four Sundays that precede it in such ways as to show clear markers and directions. Sunday 4 before is the Sunday of the Tax Collector, and the Pharisee, Sunday 3 the parable of the prodigal Son (or Merciful Father) Sunday 2 is a clarion call to get ready, Meat fare Sunday, when we are then supposed not to eat meat and Sunday 1, Cheese fare Sunday, the reminder that the great Lenten Fast begins with Monday's entry into Lent.
Unlike our Western Catholic tradition, Lent does not begin with that wonderfully evocative service of ashing on Ash Wednesday. This is partly due to different ways of calculating Lent, something that has always been the historical case; though for all of us East and West, the penitential discipline of fasting does not apply on Sundays as that remains the Day of Resurrection whatever happens. So for the Orthodox and Byzantine Churches, at Vespers on Cheese fare Sunday the Service of Forgiveness takes place, and it is this that marks the beginning of our observance, here each member of the congregation has to ask for and give forgiveness to each other, using the simple phrase, 'forgive me a sinner' to which each responds: 'God forgives'. and then we give each other the sign of peace. Thus we are pushed; perhaps one might say 'fired up' to start Great Lent with actual repentance. In a different way we are called to do that on Ash Wednesday.
And so we begin! I hope I will take my Lenten observance seriously but with a joyful heart, trying to fast in a good manner, deepen my prayer and charitable works so that the Lord may work in and through me. I hope this goes for you too!