Lenten fast An opportunity at conversation

During this period, many Catholics experience the joy of re-connecting with the Lord and the Church, as we journey toward Easter, preparing ourselves spiritually, to celebrate the Resurrection.

Mar 17, 2023

MAKING SENSE - Emmanuel Joseph

We are halfway through with Lent and Holy Week will soon be upon us. The 44 days of fasting, penance and almsgiving we do annually to remind us of the Jesus’ time in the desert.

During this period, many Catholics experience the joy of re-connecting with the Lord and the Church, as we journey toward Easter, preparing ourselves spiritually, to celebrate the Resurrection.

Yet while we are focussed on self-conversion and inward reflection, Lent presents an opportunity for conversation and reaching out, as well.

Apart from the usual charities, it gives us, almost naturally, an opportunity to talk about our faith, and even the creative ways we sometimes express it, as well as the common points we have with our brothers and sisters belonging to other denominations and religions.

The Lenten fast, for example. Fasting is practised in almost every faith, using an ancient, time-honoured tradition to attain any number of different, but almost related goals.

At the crux of it, fasting is the most basic form of human self-denial, refusing to feed oneself, in the hope of attaining some form of higher realisation or reward. It affects us biologically, mentally, and of course, spiritually.

Other Christians
While the Church prescribes abstinence as the general rule, applicable from ages 18-60, not consuming meat, and having either two half-meals or one full meal a day, many Malaysian Catholics tend to go full vegetarian. Others give up something in addition too, such as social media, their favourite TV show, their mobile screen time, their favourite foods or drinks and so on. This creative expression of sacrifice beyond the traditional scope makes for an interesting sharing of faith.

Other mainstream Churches too, such as Anglicans and Methodists observe Lent, too. Eastern churches, like the Eastern Orthodox, observe Lent for about one week more, complete with a Pre-Lent season.

Eastern Churches dates for Easter and Lent tend to be a little later than Western churches, like ours.

Orthodox Churches also prescribe specific fasts by week – pre-Lent, First Week of Lent, Second to Sixth Week and Pascha Week. At its longest, fasts can stretch for three days, and as its strictest, it even prohibits all forms of oil!

The traditions, liturgy and prayers in the Orthodox churches for both Lent and Pascha (Easter) are elaborate and beautiful (and even longer than ours!)

Even though Evangelical Churches are not conventionally known for observing Lent, there is an observable increasing trend among millennials and younger members, especially in independent churches, to adopt aspects of Catholic practice, such as Lent and aspects of Holy Week as they seek a deeper, more spiritual meaning to being Church, and to Eastertide.

Catholics could share our rich history – many practices in the Protestant Churches have their roots in our own history, albeit usually in a more ‘toned down’ manner – such as the Roman collar, liturgical uniformity, simplified rituals and the use of other outward expressions of inward faith- as we do with Sacraments and sacramentals.

Thus, points like Lent opens up conversation as our brothers and sisters in Christ in these churches discover why Catholics do the things they do – changing some preconceived notions they may have about our faith, and opening up their mind on other aspects of it as well.

Other Faiths
Not only are both similar – fixed period of fasting and prayer, in spiritual preparation of a celebration (Eid ul-Fitr/Hari Raya) of spiritual victory over the flesh, Muslims also observe the second Eid, as a remembrance of sacrifice – of Ishmael to God, by Abraham (while Christians and Jews believe Isaac was the sacrifice), while we observe the sacrifice of Jesus for mankind, at Easter.

Perhaps more interestingly, Akedah (as it is called in Judaism) also provides the root term for Aqidah in Islam (or faith) and the Muslim term for it, Qurban, provides the word for Arab Christian term for Mass.

One of the earliest religions, Hinduism, practises various types of fasts – from food and drink, from conjugal activity, and some from speaking, sometimes for weeks and months. Some Catholic monastics too, observe this vow of silence as part of their religious discipline, such as the Carthusian Order, as do some monks from Buddhist and Taoist traditions. Both these religions of Indian origin also fast on certain auspicious days, and inauspicious ones as well — one as a means of temperance of festivities, and the latter as a means of penance to offset the negativity associated with such days.

Sikhs advocate moderation in all aspects of life, including worship, and as such, specifically encourage fasting among its adherents, generally considering it an extreme practice.

Interestingly, all religious fasts seem to be demarcated by prefixed calendar periods — indicative of a common wisdom by our founders to balance out the ever-present worldly excesses with spiritual exercises. And perhaps with that, a bit more understanding between us.

(Emmanuel Joseph oversees IT as his 9-5 job and from 5-9, he serves a few NGOs, think tanks and volunteer groups. He serves as an advisor for Projek Dialog and is a Fellow with the Institute of Research and Development of Policy.)

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