Why we ash & why we fast

It’s Ash Wednesday. It’s one of those holy days with which I have an odd relationship.

I went to St. Monica Catholic High School as a Protestant. My Dad had been excommunicated from the Catholic Church when he was 16, and so I’d grown up with a fairly anti-Catholic bent.

Because of that, Ash Wednesday and Lent were opportunities to flaunt my non-Catholic status in front of my Catholic classmates who were fasting (supposedly) through Lent. I’d give up for Lent things that I never did in the first place (like skydiving). Looking back, I shake my head at my teenage self and my mockery of holy things.

But during those years at StMo’s, I saw real faith in my Catholic friends and teachers that I hadn’t expected to see. And that faith chipped away at the walls that had divided me from my Christian brothers and sisters. So, it was no surprise that as an adult, I came full circle with Ash Wednesday and Lent, learning to enter into and cherish these ancient Christian practices.

For those who aren’t familiar with the season, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, a 40-day season of fasting and penitence that ends with Easter Sunday. The 40 days matches the 40 days Jesus fasted at the very beginning of his ministry, right after being baptized. But that number 40 is throughout the Scriptures and always represents a time of desolation leading up to a time of newness. It’s a pregnant time — pregnancy lasting 40 weeks and being a heavy time that leads to new life.

It rains for 40 days and nights in the great Flood. The Hebrews wander for 40 years in the desert before entering the promised land. Moses is on the mountain for 40 days without food before receiving the Torah. Goliath taunts the Israelites for 40 days before David takes him down with a single stone. Elijah marches for 40 days without food before coming to the mountain of God. You get the point.

40s are hard. They’re supposed to be. But they all lead to and prepare for something new, something full of life, some experience of God. And so we enter into the 40 days of Lent with both dread and expectation. This will be brutal. This will be good.

God wants to conceive something new in us. But in order for that to happen, we have to be willing, to be receptive, to persevere, to see it to full term.

To do that, it has been helpful for me to think of my fasting as not just a stopping, but a starting. It’s best when it’s both.

First of all, fasting is a stopping. We stop doing something. Eating sugary foods. Drinking beer. Listening to music in the car. Engaging in social media. Playing video games. Traditionally, fasting has been food-based, but in our tech-soaked world, it makes sense to consider cutting out some form of technology.

Being able to say NO to something that dominates our lives is both a difficulty and a sign of freedom. And freedom is a deeply biblical value, especially when we look at the stories built around 40s.

One friend cut out music in the car for Lent and found himself with wide-open times of thinking and praying that had been numbed by the noise.

One friend cut out consuming violence — TV, movies, news, and video games in particular — as he transitioned from military life to civilian life and found it refreshing.

Now, most people fail at their fasts at some point during Lent. And in a way, I find this appropriate. For when we fail at our attempts at righteousness, we are reminded of our need for a Savior, our need for Jesus, our need for Easter, which is what Lent is pointing toward anyway. The focus of Lent isn’t on not doing something, it’s on preparing for something. And in an odd way, our failures are part of the preparing.

Also, Lent is 40 days long. But if you get out your calendar and count up the days till Easter, you’ll end up with 47 days. What gives? Well, Sundays don’t count. Sundays are always days of rejoicing, of celebrating. Every Sunday, not just Easter, is a celebration of the resurrection. So, we don’t fast on Sundays.

Is that an excuse for indulging? No. But the non-fasting of Sundays enables us to make it through the 40 fasting days.

OK. That’s the stopping part. Now to the starting part.

The pain caused by fasting during Lent is a great opportunity to engage in spiritual practices. For instance, if I’ve given up coffee for Lent, every time I think of coffee, I use that as a trigger for prayer.

Pain is a great trigger. It kicks in and it spurs us on to do something about it. That urge to click over to Facebook requires an action from me. The need for something sweet won’t leave me alone until I do something. But if I tweak my response actions away from clicking and eating and move them toward praying, I will have created new pathways in my brain, new habits that are healthier for me body and soul. The hope being that whenever I crave that thing again after the fast is over, I will still use that craving as a trigger for prayer and not just for the typical means of relief.

There are more reasons why we engage in Ash Wednesday and Lent, but the main thing is to enter into a difficult but pregnant season where God will bring new life at its end.