Friday, March 11, 2011

On the weakening of Lent's Influence

The holy season of Lent, the “Great Fast” as it is called in the past, is once again upon us. Today, so many of us flock to Church to receive ashes on the forehead as a sign of penitence. Unfortunately, to many, this would be as far will Lent go. After all, not only has the discipline of Lent been relaxed to the point that it is almost non existent. Holy Week, which should be the height of the Lenten season is now more an opportunity to relax and go to the beach for a week-long vacation. What have we done to Lent? Where has it gone?

Unlike the Muslim Ramadan, Lent is really disappearing because while the Muslims have kept to this day the rigors of the Ramadan fast, we have cut too many corners in our Lenten disciple. So much have we relaxed, so much have we thrown away that Lent has lost its spiritual power and impact in the life of both the society and the individual. Why do we say that the relaxation of the Lenten fast has deprived this holy season of its power? Well, it is because “Lent is a time consecrated to penance, and this penance is practiced by fasting. Fasting is an abstinence, which man voluntarily imposes upon himself, as an expiation for sin…” (P. Gueranger, OP, The Liturgical Year, 3.) Essentially, fasting is abstinence from meat, from wine, and from a portion of our ordinary food, inasmuch as it allows the taking of only one meal in a day. We inherited from the Jews the custom of taking that one meal, which was allowed on days of fasting, only after sun-set. And this is done for 40 successive days (except on Sundays when no fasting was allowed.) Now, I hope that we realize how far have we fallen from the original practice of Lent. We say that the penitential character of Lent was relaxed so that it could be more readily acceptable to modern man. Ramadan is basically the same discipline of the original Lent: neither food nor drink from sunrise till sunset during the entire duration of the festival. The strange thing is that between Lent and Ramadan, modern man reveres Ramadan more than it does to Lent. The ironic thing is that as we have attempted to adjust Lent to the perceived standards of modernity, the more it has lost its relevance to modern society.

In 1741, Pope Benedict XIV warned the Church of the meaning of the relaxation of the Lenten discipline: “The observance of Lent is the very badge of the Christian warfare. By it, we prove ourselves not to be enemies of the Cross of Christ. By it, we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it, we gain strength against the prince of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. Should mankind grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Christian religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted, but that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe.” Come to think of it, though these were written by a pope in the 18th century, they present to us a very real and alarming picture of our society which is "no longer driven by the spirit of mortification and is now suffering the effeminacy of character which leads to so much social disorder." We have lost the militancy of the Christian faith for we no longer stand up to the evil principalities and powers of the air and water. We keep on saying that fasting from food and drink is not as important as fasting from sin. But the reality is, now that we no longer exercise abstinence from food and drink, do we really care to abstain from sin? How can you discipline the soul if you could not discipline the body? If you cannot tame your appetite, you cannot conquer the evil one. “This, you can only drive away through prayer and fasting,” our Lord once told his disciples. The word of God is very clear: unless we do penance, we shall perish (Luke 13:3).

In this day and age when we are heaping upon ourselves the wrath of God, in this time when the world around us is beset by civil discord and by the scourges of natural calamities, it is time to return to God by way of fasting: Thus says the Lord, “Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning. Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment. Perhaps he will again relent and leave behind him a blessing. Offerings and libations for the Lord your God.”

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