I’ve got through the first week of Lent with just one small lapse from my alcohol fast.
Yim Soon had suggested that we share the can of beer that was lurking at the back of the fridge to help wash down our Friday evening curry. I put up no resistance. As Oscar Wilde famously said, “The only thing I cannot resist is temptation.” I’ve also managed to have only two very small pieces of chocolate. They were just sort of lying around and I thought they might go off if left until Easter. That temptation thing again! Mind you, I was informed by a priest I know that his parting words to his congregation on the Sunday before Lent were, “If chocolate is the thing that lifts your morale (apart from the sugar rush) then don’t give it up this Lent. We don’t need to be looking for extra penances.” I told him that was sensible advice in view of the tough year that many people have just endured.
In the early centuries of the Christian Church Lent was taken very seriously. There was one meal a day, taken in the evening, and there was complete abstention from meat, dairy products and eggs. That was how the tradition of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday came about: using up things in the kitchen before the great fast began. It was similar in severity to the season of Ramadan, when Muslims practise total abstinence from food and drink, including water, between sunrise and sunset.
As with any religious fast, whether it’s heavy duty or the decidedly half-hearted affair that I practice, the aim is, in part, to bring people closer to God, and we hear on Ash Wednesday the words from the book of Joel (Chapter 2), “Come back to me with all your heart.” It is also a time to be more aware of those in our communities and in our world who have nothing. One year during Ramadan I got chatting to the Pakistani woman who runs the green grocer near us. She was excited about the holy season and said that it was a time for Muslims to reach out to those in need and to do good deeds. Our conversation was at the beginning of Ramadan and I noticed as it got to the end of the month that her husband in particular was visibly feeling the strain. And who wouldn’t be! I’d be going up the wall and looking totally miserable.
It’s not just food and drink that we might choose to fast from, and I was touched by what Pope Francis wrote in 2017 at the time of Lent:
‘Fast from hurting words and say kind words.
Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.
Fast from anger and be filled with patience.
Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.
Fast from worries and have trust in God.
Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.
Fast from pressures and be prayerful.
Fast from bitterness and fill your hearts with joy.
Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.
Fast from grudges and be reconciled.
Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.’
The words of Isaiah (Chapter 58) are even more radical:
‘Is not this the kind of fast that is pleasing to God, to break unjust fetters, and undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke, to share your bread with the hungry, and shelter the homeless poor, to clothe the person you see to be naked….then your light will rise in the darkness.’
Only five and a bit weeks to go. Let’s see if I can make it to Easter without too many more lapses…