The word “Ash” in “Ash Wednesday”, brings to mind the fact that we cannot escape death, and forces us to see how insignificant everything is, how we flow away in the immeasurably stream of people and things that disappear out of view… out of memory of all that lives on earth. So extremely little remains of us, only a bit of ash, just enough to trace a cross on our forehead. How silly to attach so much to what is perishable, to make such a fuss about possessions, honour, pleasure and our reputation… “Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity, except loving God and serving him alone.”
The important things that remain [our task] is “to become like Christ out of love for Him and doing all that can be done for others out of love for Him”. To become “Christ-like” is a lifelong task. However, Lent is a very special time during which we could and should spend some time to tell Jesus that we want to be more like Him and that we are willing to make the changes needed; that we are prepared to adjust our actions and our ways of thinking. It is a period of honesty with our selves. We stop pushing difficult facts out of our mind, we recollect ourselves and reflect. It is a time for trying to better our lives – a time of conversion and penance. That’s why we do some fasting and defend our inner freedom against all that curtails our attitude of service and love.
Fasting is not only taking place in the present time. The Jews had one day in the year set apart for a national fast according to the Old Testament laws. That is the Day of Atonement, on the ‘tenth day of the seventh month’ [end of September/beginning October]. During the exile in Babylon, special fasts were also held in the fifth and seventh months to mourn the destruction of the Temple and the murder of Gedaliah, governor of Judah. After the exile two other regular fasts were held: in the tenth month, to remember the start of the siege of Jerusalem, and in the fourth month, marking the final capture of the city. Fasts were also kept by the nation and by individuals at times of special needs.
Prayer and fasting went together.
People fasted as a sign of genuine repentance. During the time of fasting they did not eat or drink. Other customs were to tear their clothes, dress in coarse sackcloth, throw dust and ashes on their heads, and leave their hair uncombed and their bodies unwashed.
But the prophets, and Jesus himself, made it very clear that these outward signs of fasting were not enough. A real change of heart is what matters most.
In Cameroon, and surely all over Africa, the fasting by the Muslims does take place in a quite noticeable way. They observe their fast during the month of Ramadan, [i.e. during the 9th month of the 12-month Islamic lunar year]. For the entire month, they must fast from daybreak to sunset by refraining from eating, smoking, drinking, sexual intercourse and other bodily pleasure. However, they may wake before daybreak to eat a meal that will sustain them until sunset. Menstruating women, breastfeeding mothers, women in advanced stage of pregnancy, travellers, and sick people are exempted from fasting but have to make up the days they miss at a later date.
According to various traditional interpretations, the fast introduces physical and spiritual discipline, serves to remind the rich of the misfortunes of the poor, and fosters, through this rigorous act of worship, a sense of solidarity and mutual care among Muslims of all social backgrounds. Muslims usually engage in further acts of worship beyond the ordinary during Ramadan, such as voluntary night prayer, reading sections from the Koran, and paying voluntary charity to the poor.
After fasting ends, ‘the holyday of breaking the fast’ begins and lasts three days; there is a lot of visiting between families and friends, with the giving and receiving of presents – very much like the Christians celebrate at Christmas.
At any time during the year fasting is also required as a compensation for various offences and violations of the law.
Many Muslims perform a fast at various times of the year as acts of devotion and spiritual discipline. However, such additional fasting is not required by Islamic law.
What is the history of fasting in the Catholic Church?
Halfway the second century there were two stern days of fasting just before Easter [with reference made to Mt. 9:15], which concluded with a Vigil – the oldest one. At the end of this Vigil light shone in the darkness and baptism was given to those who had prepared for it. The Season of Easter lasted fifty days, hence this time of joy was called “Pentecost”. Only later ‘the Sending of the Holy Spirit’ was celebrated on the fiftieth day of this time of joy, and the period of fasting before Easter extended to 40. There was a definite fasting law [during two of the three daily meals people ate two thirds of what they were usually eating during these meals]; it gave them the impression that at least they were doing something. Late, this period was increased with a pre-fasting to 70 days.
During the second half of the previous century, the value and wisdom of the undiscriminating practice of the fasting law became doubtful. The strain imposed on many people by their work, the view of the body-soul relationship and the people’s eating habits [in many cases by no means excessive at the time] set in motion a rethink of the fasting habits. This resulted in relaxing the fasting laws considerably; viz. to Ash Wednesday and all Fridays during Lent, whilst the feasts in the liturgy were suspended [except for the solemnity of St. Joseph – Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord] and marriages were not allowed to be celebrated without special cause. Due to local situations, Ecclesiastical Provinces are allowed to make the following adjustment: “The fasting days in our Ecclesiastical Province are on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday.” This arrangement was made in the Bamenda Ecclesiastical Province.
However, in the context of the current socio-political situation in the Anglophone Regio’s of Cameroon, the Most Rev. Cornelius Fontem Esua, Archbishop of Bamenda, requested afterwards [in his circular of 15-02-2017] “a Day of Fasting, Prayer and Eucharistic Adoration to be observed in the Archdiocese of Bamenda on every Friday beginning from Friday 17th February, 2017.”
“Lent is a time of sober realism.” Hence we should check ourselves in our relation to God and our fellow people to find out where corrections need to be made. This will be quite different from person to person. So, you need – in all honesty – find your own mistake[s] and… correct them!
For some it will involve to be more strict in their duties at work, to be patient, or perhaps to reduce smoking or consumption of alcoholic beverage; maybe there is a need to be more attentive to the needs of others; perchance you should be more quiet and less dominating, or control your inquisitiveness; others may need to be more respectful and polite or to stop telling lies; for some to be honest in business, to pay tax and outstanding bills or have a greater self-control and stop having sex before marriage; perhaps you need to be a better partner of your wife or a better partner for your husband; to stop false friendships and becoming faithful to your marriage partner; perhaps there is a need to become a better example and friend to your children; maybe you’re getting so busy with work and outside things that you become a stranger in your home; check if you have sufficient interest in the ordinary household things. Etc., etc.
In addition to what is referred to as “fasting”,
the serious and continuous efforts you make to correct yourself,
are positive actions,
they give you a sense of solidarity and a mutual care for others,
a greater respect by others
and the happy feeling of the fact
that you conduct yourself as a proper Christian.
Fasting, prayer and alms giving go hand-in hand to express conversion in relation to oneself, to God and to others.
Lord, you know everything;
you know that I love you.
I really desire to remain close to you.
I’m sorry for my past failures
and ask you to make me as faithful
as Peter was
after he said that he loved you.
A m e n.
Bro Huub Welters mhm, Bamenda, Cameroon