We actually have a longer break than usual between Christmas and Lent this year, but, yes, it is time to be thinking about Lent!
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday on March 5th this year, and Easter is on April 20. In between–Lent (well, and the Triduum. Technically Lent ends on Holy Thursday before the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.)
For adult Catholics (as in, those who have to fast and abstain): We abstain from meat every Friday of Lent, as well as Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are also days of fasting, which means that we eat one “regular” meal and two smaller meals that do not, together, equal a full meal. (In monastic parlance, these smaller meals are sometimes called collations). Here’s what the USCCB says about fast and abstinence:
Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of fasting and abstinence for Catholics. In addition, Fridays during Lent are obligatory days of abstinence.
For members of the Latin Catholic Church, the norms on fasting are obligatory from age 18 until age 59. When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal. Two smaller meals may also be taken, but not to equal a full meal. The norms concerning abstinence from meat are binding upon members of the Latin Catholic Church from age 14 onwards.
Members of the Eastern Catholic Churches are to observe the particular law of their ownsui iuris Church.
If possible, the fast on Good Friday is continued until the Easter Vigil (on Holy Saturday night) as the “paschal fast” to honor the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus, and to prepare ourselves to share more fully and to celebrate more readily his Resurrection.
For more information, the Conference has a web page you can visit here.
We are not fasting to lose weight, or as a diet plan. We fast because:
…Christ, however, is the new Adam. At the beginning of his ministry in the Gospel of Matthew, we read, “When He had fasted 40 days and 40 nights, He became hungry.” Hunger is that state in which we realize our dependence on something else—when we face the ultimate question: “on what does my life depend?” Satan tempted both Adam and Christ, saying: Eat, for your hunger is proof that you depend entirely on food, that your life is in food. Adam believed and ate. Christ said, “Man does NOT live by bread alone.” (Mt. 4:4; Lk. 4:4) This liberates us from total dependence on food, on matter, on the world. Thus, for the Christian, fasting is the only means by which man recovers his true spiritual nature.In order for fasting to be effective, then, the spirit must be a part of it. Christian fasting is not concerned with losing weight. It is a matter of prayer and the spirit. And because of that, because it is truly a place of the spirit, true fasting may well lead to temptation, and weakness and doubt and irritation.In other words, it will be a real fight between good and evil, and very likely we shall fail many times in these battles. But the very discovery of the Christian life as “fight” and “effort” is an essential aspect of fasting.
–Reflection on Lenten Fasting, by Rev. Daniel Merz
A great thing to do in the spirit of fasting and almsgiving is to contribute to Catholic Relief Service’s Operation Rice Bowl.
So make a plan for those meatless Fridays! Does your church have a fish fry you can attend? Is there one nearby? If you don’t like fish (and most fish fries usually offer a fish-less entree, like mac and cheese), do you want to make meatless meals on Fridays at home? Operation Rice Bowl also has a page of recipes, one for each Friday of Lent.
Almsgiving is, essentially, giving money to the poor. In Lent, we particularly focus on this. By “giving up” some things, we can spend the money that would usually be spent on something that benefits the church and the poor. My church has a poor box in the back, where we can drop money; most diocese offer a program for the poor and homeless, to which you could donate; Operation Rice Bowl, as listed above, is another option. You can give money to any organization that you support (I hope, obviously, that these are well-vetted Catholic organizations, bien sur).
Prayer: Jesus spent forty days fasting and praying in the desert before he began his mission, and he’s God. How much more, then, do we need these things!
Lent is a great time to revamp, or increase, your prayer life. Try attending daily Mass in the middle of the week. Want to try saying the Liturgy of the Hours? Pray the stations of the cross every Lenten Friday; pray the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary. These are only some basic options, of course. There are so many more out there.
When thinking about Penance for Lent, think about the areas where you really need help. Pick something that will be HARD for you, not something easy (as in, the adult equivalent of kids’ “I’m going to give up homework!”). I am giving up Facebook and book buying. Let me tell you, those things are hard for me! They are things that I sometimes–OK, often–put before prayer, before time with God.
Our Sunday Visitor has an article of ways to prepare for Lent that you might find enlightening, and links to PDFs.