Today marks the beginning of Lent, of 40 days of fasting, prayer and almsgiving, to remind us of the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert, resisting temptation. The conclusion of Lent will come with Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week, when we remember Jesus' Last Supper, death, and Resurrection. Today, however, you will see many Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, receiving ashes. There is a bit of irony in this. You see, we receive ashes to show that we have sinned, to remind us of our fallen state, and to encourage us to grow in faith. Yet even non-practicing Christians will show up in droves to church to get their ashes. Of course, I am not supposed to judge but it does puzzle me a bit. It's almost a mark of pride when it should be a mark of humility.
For Catholics, we are required to fast, allowing only for one full meal with maybe two small snacks if anything else. Other than that, we are only allowed water and the meal we do have cannot have meat in it (fish is OK). Of course, there are exceptions, like you are only required if you are between 18 and 59 and in good health. Pregnant and nursing women are exempt. In our faith, which is huge on solidarity, the idea is to pray for those who are hungry and to take the money you would have spent on your own food to pay for a hungry person's meal.
For me, fasting is a difficult exercise. Blessed with a high metabolism and Italian relatives and neighbors who always tell me I'm too skinny and need to eat more, I go crazy when I can't even have a snack. To top it off, I've always ended up working on Ash Wednesday and working at restaurant does surround one with temptation. However, after living in Kenya and working with energetic children (many of whom only had one full meal and a meager breakfast, usually only because their school provided it), I find a need to connect with my brothers and sisters who don't have enough. For me, it's not only a spiritual purification (one that encourages me to smile through the pain and offer my hunger to God, to help me avoid sin), it's an exercise in solidarity as well as self-control.
We are a society that believes in instant gratification and justifies selfishness. What would it look like if we took a day to deny ourselves? And, in that act of denying ourselves, chose to smile through it and reach out to other people? What would it look like if the entire world did it? After all, doesn't it start with us on some level?
One of my friends in Kenya goes hungry. Every day, she struggles on a dollar a day to take care of two children (one hers and the other, an adopted nephew) after leaving an abusive husband. Despite this, she also took me in one night when it was too late to go home safely. She always fed me an abundance of food each time I went to her house. Though I have not her contact information, I still carry her kindness. Is it too much to ask me to go without for one day and give what I would have had to someone who goes without for life? And is it too much to ask me to not complain but to give with a smile?
Peace be with you all, of all faiths. And strength to those who fast today!