This Ash Wednesday we offer a collection of mostly short reflections on this day, Lent, fasting, confession, and related subjects highlighted for us by the Church at this point in the Church year. It’s a collection, out of the overwhelming riches of the Catholic tradition, written or suggested by our editors, writers, and friends.
Introduction: The Lenten Journey
Today, Catholics and Christians are embarking on a journey which will lead through forty days of sacrifice and self-denial. Through Lent, they must encounter Christ's suffering and death before continuing on to the joy of His resurrection. Lenten devotion will ask many to decline an invitation to a great party so that they can attend the stations of the cross. It will mean ordering salmon instead of that delicious rib-eye steak on their next date. For most, it will include giving up something they love to do on a daily basis. It can be very hard to force oneself on the journey of suffering which Christ took before us.
This stands in stark contrast to the American flavor of Christianity, which boasts of religion-less religion often. No need for regulations or requirements or attending church on Sunday. Just love Jesus. It's simple. Instead of sacrifice, think about what you can receive from God. It is also quite easy.
We should note that the word religion comes from the Latin religare, which means to bind or to fasten. Think about the words traditionally used to describe admirable Christians: devoted (to give all or a large part of one's resources), pious (dutiful), holy (consecrated, set apart), etc. It's only recently been an idea that religious involvement can be, well, un-religious.
If we love, we must sacrifice much. This is not a religious phenomenon, it is wholly natural. Marriage necessarily precludes all but one person to whom we devote our lives. Children require loss of sleep, taking them to every soccer practice, maybe lacking the money to have the latest iPhone or nicest clothes. Even outside of relationships, much of every-day life means sacrifice. We sacrifice sleep to get a good grade, much of our freedom to do well at a new job, money to save for retirement. The list goes on. Why is religion excluded from this?
I read in an article once, "We are made to love, and anyone who loves is necessarily bound to the object of their love. Any philosophy that makes liberty the object and center of existence is, quite frankly, a lie." Catholic or not, this Lent it's good for us to remember that being bound to something or Someone—being limited for the sake of love—is a good and beautiful thing.
— Elisabeth Cervantes-Moore, a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College, is a staff writer for Ballotpedia. She lives in Phoenix with her husband. A version of this article appeared in The Intercollegiate Review.
And More on the Lenten Journey
Lent is a journey: it is marked by its end, that is, preparation for celebrating the mysteries of Christ’s suffering, dying and resurrecting. In recent times, the secularization of Lent pushes Christians to treat it as another “resolution making” event. The idea of “what I give up” becomes the goal. But Scripture says that this is a season to rend our hearts and not our garments.
Lent is a time thus to subtract those good things to focus on the Good One. It is a time to add prayerful moments in order to encounter His love for us. Lent should lead, by that encounter with Love, to a deeper awareness of the suffering in our neighbor, so that Faith may have fruits.
— Taken from the Editors’ Lent: An Encounter, Not an Event.
Reasons for Fasting
Christian tradition can name at least seven reasons for fasting:
- From the beginning, God commanded some fasting, and sin entered into the world because Adam and Eve broke the fast.
- For the Christian, fasting is ultimately about fasting from sin.
- Fasting reveals our dependence on God and not the resources of this world.
- Fasting is an ancient way of preparing for the Eucharist—the truest of foods.
- Fasting is preparation for baptism (and all the sacraments)—for the reception of grace.
- Fasting is a means of saving resources to give to the poor.
- Fasting is a means of self-discipline, chastity, and the restraining of the appetites.
— From Fr. Daniel Merz’s A Reflection on Biblical Fasting.
The American Bishops’ Instructions
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Questions and Answers About Lent and Lenten Practice. See Fast and Abstinence for more instruction on Good Friday.
Confession and Shame
Why should you be ashamed to confess your sins? Why not take the shame off yourself and put it upon Satan? When the devil is tempting the sinner to fall, he takes away the shame from him; but when he is going to make a confession, the devil hastily gives back the shame.
When we have true sorrow for sin the heart is, as it were, crushed and broken. Such sorrow is called by the expressive name of “contrition,” which words is a compound of two Latin words signifying: a complete crushing together, or a breaking in pieces. The heart is hardened by pride and sin; by contrition it is smashed into atoms.
— Father Patrick O’Keeffe in Catholic Oratory: A Compilation of Sacred and Sublime Orations (1891), suggested by Anne Gardiner.
The Ten Commandments as Guides to the Examination of Conscience
Thousands of years after those first stone tablets, people around the world still speak of “the Ten Commandments”—a quick summary of right and wrong, as knowable by thoughtful men and women, and then confirmed by divine revelation. Over the centuries, rabbis and other Jewish scholars accumulated thoughtful and wise theological commentary on the commandments.
Even so, when Jesus began to preach, his explanation of the commandments shocked everyone:
“You have heard it said, ‘You shall not murder,’ but I say to you, whoever is even angry at his brother shall be liable to judgment [for murder]…Whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Hell.”
- “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ but I say to you, anyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
And so Jesus continued, not lifting the burden of the law, but calling people to an astonishingly radical obedience—not superficial obedience, but the full conformity of mind and heart and soul, pointing to the “Law of Love” as the only way to full maturity as a follower of Jesus. Imitating Jesus, we wholeheartedly embrace loving obedience to God and humble service to others.
Jesus’ followers still use the Ten Commandments to remember the profound obedience and love to which we are called, and the ways in which we have failed to mature. A large portion of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 2083-2557 (which start here), elaborates our Christian understanding:
First Commandment: I am the Lord your God: You shall not have strange gods before me.
Doubt, disbelief, heresy, apostasy, schism, despair, presumption, acedia (spiritual boredom), indifference, ingratitude, lukewarmness, superstition, idolatry, divination, magic, testing God, sacrilege, simony, agnosticism.
Second Commandment: You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
Abuse of God’s Name, oath-breaking, blasphemy, perjury, frivolous oaths.
Third Commandment: Remember to keep holy the Lord’s day.
Missing Sunday Mass for frivolous reasons, unnecessary work on Sunday.
Fourth Commandment: Honor your father and your mother.
Children’s disobedience of parents, adults’ disrespect for their parents, neglect of family life, neglect of children or their education or evangelization, disrespect or disobedience of legitimate authority.
Fifth Commandment: You shall not kill.
Murder (direct and deliberate killing of innocent persons), abortion, euthanasia, suicide, scandal, intemperance, kidnapping, terrorism, mutilation, sterilization, grave robbing or desecration, anger, hatred, unjust war, accumulation of weapons, involvement with irregular weapons.
Sixth Commandment: You shall not commit adultery.
Lust, masturbation, fornication, pornography, prostitution, rape, adultery, homosexual acts, contraception, frivolous separation/divorce, polygamy, false dissolution of marriage, false attempt at marriage, incest, concubinage (“living together”).
Seventh Commandment: You shall not steal.
Theft, all forms of abuse or misappropriation of others’ property, fraud, tax evasion, waste, disregard for contracts, failure to make just reparations for harm, intemperate gambling, facilitating intemperate gambling, slavery, animal abuse, promotion of unjust social systems, disregard for the poor.
Eighth Commandment: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
False witness, perjury, rash judgment, detraction, calumny, flattery, adulation of sin, complaisance, boasting, caricature, lying, deception, violation of the seal of the confessional, violation of professional confidence, violation of personal confidence, manipulation of mass media.
Ninth Commandment: You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.
Lust, immodesty, promotion of cultural licentiousness.
Tenth Commandment: You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods.
Greed, avarice, envy.
— Fr. David Poecking, pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Carnegie, Pennsylvania.
Remember, You’re Dust
In your sins, you are not even the unique individual you think yourself. You are not special. You are average, mediocre, run of the mill. But nevertheless, the Ash Wednesday rite recognizes that you are particularly interested in the fate of one boring sinner, yourself. It goes on to pronounce your doom in the singular form, literally to your face: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” You: You individually, you Bob, Ted, Patricia, and Ashley, are dust and will return to dust.
All this is conveyed in the action of the rite itself. You go forward and line up, either at the chancel steps or along the altar rail, and you receive the ashes with the same words everyone else hears. Remember what you are hearing when the priest says, “Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.” You are hearing what is in essence your death sentence — your eternal death sentence.
And it is delivered without the drama and pastoral sensitivity we expect. It is as if a doctor walked into his waiting room full of people with cancer, simply pointed to each one and said in a monotone, “You’re going to die,” and turned around and walked back into his office and closed the door.
— Taken from David Mills’ Remember That Thou Art Dust. He is editorial director of Ethika Politika.
A Johnny Cash Lent
Last year, despite all that was going well in my life, I had to face some challenges within my own soul and confront some uncomfortable demons. I entered the Church with confidence and exuberance, but by my tenth anniversary I found many of my prayers were a rant at God while also trying to remember to praise Him.
In prior years, I drowned these thoughts and voices in booze, sensuality, and everything that goes with it. This year, I found writing, prayer, and contemplation was far healthier but also quite a bit more difficult. If I’ve learned anything in my 30’s it’s that the slow death of self-medication is far easier than trying to wrestle with your own demons in the hope that life is worth living.
While my life, compared to Johnny Cash and many others, has been incredibly easy, his music has meant a lot to me. In his lyrics I found an Old Testament man strumming the steel strings of a guitar, singing once about how “God’s Gonna Cut you Down” while also begging “Lead me Father,with the staff of life/Give me the strength for a song” and it was all from the same man who knew well both the disappointment of his own life as well as what Graham Greene called “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”
If I could go back eleven years ago and talk to my younger self I’d give a lot of advice; “See a therapist, don’t stop taking your medication, and try to go for a walk once-in-a-while.” However, I think I’d more likely tell my young, idiot self, the wisdom of The Man in Black, “It takes a real man to live for God—a lot more man than to live for the devil.”
This Lent, let’s be more like Johnny Cash. Let’s admit our faults and our shortcomings but do it with the confidence that they are not what defines us. Rather, let those challenges give us a tender heart to stand up for the weak and displaced and be a symbol of God’s mercy. Let this Lent be the time where you’re not shy about your faith but also willing to meet everyone where they are and offer the love and friendship this world so terribly needs.
Fasting as Almsgiving
St. Gregory of Nyssa teaches that fasting is “an extension of Christ’s requirement to give alms” and should turn us away from a host of passions. His exhortations on the topic are worth quoting at length:
There is a kind of fasting which is not bodily, a spiritual self-discipline which affects the soul; this abstinence [is] from evil, and it was as a means to this that our abstinence from food was prescribed. Therefore I say to you: Fast from evil-doing, discipline yourselves from covetousness, abstain from unjust profits, starve the greed of mammon, keep in your houses no snatched or stolen treasure. For what use is it to touch no meat and to wound your brother by evil-doing? What advantage is it to forgo what is your own and to seize unjustly what is the poor’s? What piety is it to drink water and thirst for blood, weaving treachery in the wickedness of your own heart? Judas himself fasted with the eleven, but since he did not curb his love of money, his fasting availed him nothing to salvation…
St. Gregory calls Christians to a genuine fast: “Loosen every bond of injustice, undo the knots of covenants made by force. Break your bread to the hungry; bring the poor and homeless into your house. When you see the naked, cover him; and despise not your own flesh.” The Lord has given His dignity to the poor, who “are treasurers of the good things that we look for, the keepers of the gates of the kingdom, opening them to the merciful and shutting them on the harsh and uncharitable… [T]he Lord beholds what is done towards them, and every deed cries louder than a herald to Him who searches all hearts.”
When we imitate God’s generosity by giving to the poor, St. Gregory says elsewhere, we grow in the divine qualities of “mercy and kindness,” which “inhabit a person, divinize him and stamp him with imitation of the good in order to bring to life our original, immortal image which transcends conception.”
— Taken from Fr. Philip LeMasters’ The Cappadocian Fathers on Almsgiving and Fasting.
Lent has as its immediate goal increased devotions, ascetical practices, and works of mercy, to prepare for Easter. These put us in right relationship to God, ourselves, and our neighbor. Devotions bring us closer to Our Lord in adoration and supplication. Fasts and other sacrifices help us better control our unruly passions and negligences, whether we abstain from food (a minimum is required), the media, or try to overcome our imperfections. Charitable works effect a closer identification with our neighbors as brothers and sisters in Christ.
All these efforts are rooted in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity (called theological because they have God as their object), and work to intensify those virtues. As through faith we acknowledge Our Lord as the Supreme Being, we multiply our prayers, attend Mass more often, and adore Him in the Blessed Sacrament. Enabled by our faith to judge earthly things in their proper light, and thus hope for beatitude in heaven, we detach ourselves from the goods of this life through Lenten penances. Then we are better disposed to share our time and resources with others through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, the fruit of charity, seeing our neighbors as intimately connected with us in the Mystical Body.
Thus purified in soul, disciplined in body, and active in charitable works, we are better prepared to greet Our Risen Lord.
— Inez Fitzgerald Storck has written previously for New Oxford Review, The Chesterton Review, and other publications. She lives in Ohio with her husband, Thomas.
I always remember Czeslaw Milosz during Lent. Not that I don't read him during other times of the year, it's just that I find his humility particularly inspiring during this season. Milosz's attitude is profoundly humble. It's an attitude that lead to his faith being represented "obliquely" according to a wonderful 2004 essay by Benedectine monk Jeremy Driscoll. Milosz's project, or at least the portion of his project that carries the most meaning for us during Lent, was the quieting of his own ego.
Always a difficult task for anyone, it was particularly difficult for Milosz, a self-described "proud" man. You get the sense in many of his poems that Milosz was making a bid for the same sort of purification and renunciation that we engage in ourselves in preparation for the celebration of the Resurrection. Many write to inflate themselves. Milosz wrote to humble himself, each line a renunciation of his pride. I encourage everyone to read the essay and to also check out his poem "On Prayer.”
You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.
All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard,
Above landscapes the color of ripe gold
Transformed by a magic stopping of the sun.
That bridge leads to the shore of Reversal
Where everything is just the opposite and the word is
Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.
Notice: I say we; there, every one separately,
Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh
And knows that if there is no other shore
We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.
— Scott Beauchamp is an U.S. Army Infantry veteran and writer whose work appears in The Atlantic, The Baffler, The Guardian, and other publications. He mostly writes about national defense, spirituality, war, movies, and philosophy.