Today is Ash Wednesday, the day that begins the 6 week period of contemplation called Lent which leads up to Holy Week. It is supposed to be a time of introspection, prayer, self-discipline, and contemplation of all that God has done for us. Unfortunately today it has become either ignored or a time of giving up something without realizing the reason.
OK, why then give up something? It is to help us keep our focus on God. Every time we miss whatever we’ve given up, we think of God and what he gave up for us. Fasting is another word for “giving up” something. While it’s typically used with respect to food, you can fast from anything. God through the prophet described what a pleasing fast is to God (Isaiah 58:6-7, NRSV):
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
In this passage people are asked to fast from being unjust, oppressive, and selfish.
Fasting goes back to biblical times and is mentioned frequently in the Old Testament. For example, one of the lectionary readings for Ash Wednesday is from the Book of Joel, and part of that reading says (Joel 1:14, NRSV):
Sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD.
Fasting is often a part of confession and repentance, something that should be a part of a Lenten observance. We read in Joel 2:12-13 (NRSV):
Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.
Fasting alone doesn’t accomplish much, but when it is part of a regimen of prayer, meditating of things of God, or seeking direction for your life, then fasting has more meaning. Even Jesus fasted, not because he had to repent, but it was a way he prepared for his public ministry (Matthew 4:1-2, NRSV
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.
Jesus’ fast strengthened him spiritually so that he was prepared for any temptations that came his way (and they did), was ready for his public ministry, and could face the trials that would come his way.
Sadly, today we often focus more on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday than on Lent itself. Mardi Gras is become a bacchanalia rather than a day of preparation for Lent. I guess it’s “one last fling” before the self-sacrifice of Lent. It goes back to the days when Roman Catholic observance of Lent involved many meatless days and more fasting than we see today. The aspect of meatless days is in the term Mardi Gras (“fat Tuesday” in French), meaning no more fat (meat) for 6 weeks. In many parts of the world, the pre-lenten celebration is called “carnival.” Carnival has its roots in the Latin carne vale, meaning “good-bye to meat.”
As happens with so many things today, the religious significance of Lent is forgotten and we focus more on Mardi Gras than on the self-discipline that should follow. I suggest that you take this time of Lent to grow closer to God and seek his plan for your life.