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Francis Campbell: Fact and fiction of Lenten fasting

  • February 28, 2020

Families lived frugally in the rural Nova Scotia community I called home until early adulthood.

Although there always seemed to be just enough to go around, extras and luxuries were generally out of reach. With a limited supply of treats to choose from, the Lenten sacrifice often came down to homemade cookies and other baked goodies.

We were taught to observe that Lent began on Ash Wednesday and ended on Easter Sunday, and all days except Sunday during that time period were days to fast. That meant if you were able to stockpile a few cookies or other treats, that cache became fair game on Sunday.

I later learned that my wife and her siblings, reared about four-kilometres away in the same Nova Scotia community, never observed or even heard of the Sunday suspension of fast. We have assumed that my wife’s parents were aware of the tradition of the Sunday interlude but thought it less complicated to have their children fast each and every day from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday.

The tradition of Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday was not a Lenten or pre-Lenten custom in the home and community where I grew up. The custom is fairly straightforward in that households wanted to use up the bulk of the fattening ingredients lying around before Lent. There was usually eggs and milk available, leading to the simple recipe for mixing, cooking and eating pancakes on the day before the Lenten fast began.

Another less talked about pre-Lenten practice, similar in nature to pancake day, prevails in rural Nova Scotia community lore. This one had to do with an oft-observed Lenten sacrifice of abstaining from all forms of alcoholic beverages, preceded by what the older folk used to refer to as somewhat of a communal “blowout” on the Tuesday prior to Lent.

Lent, of course, is about more than saving up goodies to consume on Sundays or over-indulging on the day before the liturgical season starts.

Fr. Czeslaw Krysa, rector at a parish in Buffalo, N.Y., explained in the Western New York Catholic that Lent is marked by 40 days on the Church calendar where the faithful are called to purify and renew themselves spiritually.

“Lent is a time to prepare for the renewal of our life in the Resurrection, and a renewal of our baptismal experience of Jesus and our Risen Lord,” Krysa said.

Krysa says the ashes, produced from burned palms and used to make a cross on the forehead during Ash Wednesday Mass, symbolize a freeing of ourselves from the unnecessary.

“Ashes is the fact that basically, God is in charge,” he said. “Everything that we think we need is taken away from us and then we have to believe.”

Traditionally, Ash Wednesday prepared Catholics for baptism and reconciliation, he said.

Many Catholics make their personal pledges, giving up chocolate, coffee or alcohol during Lent, but Krysa said the sacrifice should be accompanied by a pledge to give something of yourself, to walk in the path of Christ.

“For us to be renewed, (we) have to take some kind of spiritual journey, or I call, a spiritual workout,” Krysa said. “If you want to work out and get healthy, you go and you train. This is a spiritual training time, and therefore, makes a person healthier.”

And Catholics should share the fruits of their fasting.

“When I deny myself, I need to place at the table somebody who is less fortunate and needy,” Krysa said. “That’s the origin of Christian fasting. I hear people say, ‘I’m not going to Starbucks during Lent. The money I save by not going to Starbucks, I can put aside and give it to the food pantry. We gather the fruits of the fast.’

“It’s not just writing a cheque, it’s connected with our fasting and purifying ourselves. Fasting and abstinence needs to have the other side of the coin. What I deny myself, I have to give to somebody else.”

My childhood Lenten fast of storing up goodies for a Sunday blowout seems to fall short of Krysa’s description of a spiritual journey. But, as Krysa points out, it would have met the technical requirement of Lenten fasting. That’s because the 40 days of Lent corresponds to the amount of time Jesus Christ spent fasting and wandering in the desert before launching His public ministry. But our 40 days of fasting excludes Sundays, giving Catholics a “cheat day” from their Lenten sacrifice, Krysa said.

It’s not a coincidence that Lent happens during the rebirth of spring, he said. 

“It’s a direct connection between resurrection and new life as is experienced in creation.” 

(Campbell is a reporter at the Halifax Chronicle-Herald.)

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