“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6 16:18).
The season of Lent is a time of penance from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday. The word Lent is derived from the Middle English word Lenten, which means springtime, or the time of lengthening days. At the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.), the first ecumenical council of the Church, it was decided that the Lenten observation would last for forty days.
In the early days of the Church, the Lenten observance was very strict. One meal was allowed each day, and all meat and fish were prohibited throughout the season. As of the 15th century, the one meal could be eaten by mid-day. Gradually a second meal was allowed in the evening. The Canon Law states, “All Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days and times throughout the universal Church” (Canon 1250).
As many Christian holy days have changed over the years, Lent too has changed, but its purpose has remained steadfast. In preparation for Easter, Christians are to engage in self-examination and penitence through self-denial. Today the Catholic Church requires that those ages 14-59 should abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays during Lent, and fast (eating only one full meal per day) on certain days, including Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Lent is about turning our lives over more fully to Christ. During Lent we should strive to better understand Christ’s passion and death, and penance helps us achieve this. Self-denial, through abstinence and fasting, is a form of penance. By abstaining from certain behaviors, we remove something that gets in the way of our relationship with God. Fasting helps us understand the pain of those who are hungry. We are also reminded that everything we have is a gift from God.
While traditionally people fast from food, you can also fast from negative behaviors. Go a step further and add a good behavior into your life, such as serving the community. In fact, you can strive to add this positive act into your life year round, not just for the forty days before Easter. Let this Lent be the impetus for embracing new life in Christ.
Fast from selfishness and show charity towards others this Lent. Fast from indifference and show compassion to your brothers and sisters in Christ who are in need, whether they need basic necessities like food and shelter, or they are in need of company and consolation. Sacrifice your time and energy to make a difference and transform your life and the lives of those whom you touch.
The members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Philadelphia make fasting from selfishness and indifference a part of everyday life, not just during the season of Lent. You too can feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, provide hope to the imprisoned, and give comfort to the suffering.
The Saint Vincent de Paul Society of Philadelphia has many ways, customized to each local community for you to transform the lives of your neighbors as well as your own life, including through participation and building up the community. Like that of its founder, blessed Frédéric Ozanam, the vision of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul “is to embrace the world in a network of charity.”