Thursday, February 22, 2007

Lenten Observance

Now that the smoke and ash from yesterday have cleared and our communal entry into Lent is over, are you ready for Lent? May I ask, What are you doing for Lent this year? Well, tomorrow marks the first Friday of Lent. Fridays of Lent are the only Fridays on which traditional abstinence is obligatory on the faithful in the United States, though abstaining is still expected, recommended, and highly encouraged on all Fridays throughout the year, except when a solemnity falls on a Friday (Can. 1251). All this I have covered in detail in a previous post: I'll have the filet o' fish with no tartar sauce, please. Canon Law still holds that among the penitential days in the universal Church "are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent" (Can. 1250).

On days of abstinence we are to abstain "from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference". In the U.S. the meat of flesh (i.e., warm blooded- red meat and poultry) animals is that from which we abstain. If not observed, it should be replaced by a penitential or charitable act. Ideally, abstinence from meat should be combined with intensified prayer and alms giving. As mentioned previously, abstinence "and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday" (Can. 1251).

Abstinence binds all the faithful "who have completed their fourteenth year". Whereas, fasting "binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year". According to this same canon, pastors and parents, who are the primary catechists of their children, are to ensure that the baptized who are too young to be bound by the law of fasting (most everybody can easily abstain from meat a day a week, even very young children and older people) "are taught the true meaning of penance" (Can. 1252). Of course, people with health conditions that do not allow them to observe fasting and I suppose, in some rare cases, abstinence, are exempt from these laws. As Deacon Owen Cummings recently pointed out, our penitential acts are not acts of masochism, self-torture, or even self-inflicted punishment. Such an understanding is psychologically and spiritually harmful and theologically unsound.

All of this is quite legalistic, which is utterly insufficient for spiritual growth and maturity, together and individually. No argument has less appeal than "The Church says so". Besides, such an argument, on its own, constitutes a fallacious appeal to authority. Christ has never required blind obedience of his followers. If you do not believe me, read any of the four Gospels and pay close to attention to the relationship between Jesus and the twelve. As St. Paul observes, legalism kills (2 Cor 3,6). Furthermore, legalism guilts, shames, puffs up, and causes division. It is bad news! This is not what God, our loving Father, asks or expects of us.

In our God-given freedom, we remain free to ignore such requirements of faith. If they are observed only out of a sense of legalistic obligation, they are best ignored. Practicing these disciplines taught us by our Master, does not enroll us among the spiritual elite and give us divine approval to look down on those who do not perform these works. Practiced in this way our Lord tells us in the Gospel of Ash Wednesday, we have our reward. Besides, heaven knows we ignore weightier matters of the law of love on a daily basis! What is important is that we not observe these requirements out of a mere sense of obligation. We, too, must understand "the true meaning of penance". Fasting and abstaining have both a horizontal and a vertical dimension, which makes them cruciform, thus teaching us the true meaning of penance.


Understood horizontally, fasting and abstinence, at least for us in wealthy countries, like the U.S., and also among the well-off everywhere, must be united to alms giving and acts of charity. In his encyclical, Populorum Progressio, Pope Paul VI writes: "The hungry nations of the world cry out to the peoples blessed with abundance. And the Church, cut to the quick by this cry, asks each and every man to hear his brother's plea and answer it lovingly" (PP, 3). Is this true? Are we "cut to the quick" by the hungry? Do we even hear, let alone answer, the pleas of our hungry sisters and brothers, whose number is horrifyingly high in our world of over six billion souls? Cutting to the chase and making this simple, do we take what we would honestly spend to feed ourselves and our families and contribute it to those who are hungry, thereby acting in solidarity with those who have not, or, more accurately have naught?

By this is not meant pitching spare change into the poor box at the back of the Church, or a few pennies into our Operation Rice Bowl boxes on our kitchen tables. Let me be clear, in no way do I want to denigrate either of these two easy and wonderful ways of giving. What I want to communicate, is that giving the way we should means putting into either of those two boxes, or giving in other ways to the innumerable agencies, local, national, and international, that assist those who do not enjoy the advantages we enjoy, something approximating what I do not hesitate to call the proper amount. It is an opportunity for us to get real about what we consume and how much it costs. If we are in the habit of purchasing a gourmet coffee and a muffin each morning, and eating a $5 to $10 lunch, as well as spending $10-15 to feed ourselves and our families at supper, let us not hesitate to contribute the $25-$35 we do not spend by fasting or abstaining. The words of our Lord certainly apply to our material as well as our spiritual lives,"much will be required of the person entrusted with much" (Lk 12,48).

In the vertical dimension, times of fasting and abstinence, in addition to being times of giving of our time and resources, should also be periods of intensified prayer, during which we make a concerted and deliberate effort to draw closer to our crucified and risen Lord, Jesus Christ. Lectio divina, using the Gospel for that day's Mass is a wonderful way to do this. It is also a good time to undertake a thorough examination of conscience in preparation for celebrating (Yes, celebrating) the sacrament of Penance, which calls us to be people of reconciliation in and for the world, beginning in our parishes and homes, extending to our places of work and beyond. In this way, as Christ's Body, we participate in opus Dei- the work of God, which through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit reconciling the world, restoring the communion, the original grace, which is the very purpose of our existence; restoring agapé between God and people, between people(s), and between people and nature.

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