In these days leading up to Ash Wednesday, the rich foods of Mardi Gras and Carnivale translate to mounds of pancakes and sausages at parish breakfasts and Fat Tuesday dinners around the diocese.
Time was, this abundant “farewell to meat” signaled the beginning of six weeks of strict fasting and abstinence during which, Christians were asked to imitate Jesus’ 40-day fast in the wilderness.
This trek into the desert with Jesus begins every year with the powerful rituals of Ash Wednesday when we are called to withdraw from the world and repent for our sins in order to convert our lives back to God. In the ashes we receive on our foreheads – symbolic of the “dust of the earth” from which God created us – we see again the temporary nature of our pilgrim journey on earth.
We are asked to reflect on the importance of this pilgrimage as we follow Jesus to his death on the cross.
Cardinal William J. Levada wrote movingly of this journey when he was Archbishop of San Francisco. “Ash Wednesday is not the sum total of Lent,” he wrote. “It is the doorway, inviting us to a 40-day retreat. Here the Church follows the example of Jesus, as he prepared for the work his Father sent him into the world to do, the work of announcing the Kingdom of God.”
The Gospels, Cardinal Levada wrote, tell us how Jesus conducted himself during that 40-day, self-imposed exile: he prayed and ate nothing. “At the end of that time, he was hungry,” the Cardinal noted.
On Ash Wednesday, we are asked to contemplate that fast and its place, along with prayer and almsgiving, as one of the three basic pillars of Jewish piety.
We are asked to follow Jesus’ example and turn aside from the world at large as we draw closer to God. “These three acts of piety form the basic program for the Church’s celebration of Lent,” the cardinal wrote.
While most people have no trouble embracing the first two pillars of piety, Cardinal Levada said they find fast and abstinence “problematic”.
But since they stand at “the heart of the celebration of Lent,” he called upon the faithful to reinvest themselves in these practices.
“Christians of the Eastern Churches mark this season as ‘Great Lent,’ fasting throughout from meat, fish and eggs,” he wrote. “We Catholics, on the other hand, have almost forgotten fasting and its important spiritual value. We are obliged to fast only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, a far cry from the days of yore.”
Like the cardinal, many of us still remember when every Friday of the year was meatless and when days of fasting occurred throughout the year and often enough during Lent to be a real penance.
Many among us strive every Lenten season with Soup and Scripture in our parishes throughout the diocese and in activities such as Operation Rice Bowl, to observe and interest our fellow Catholics in the essence of fasting.
That essence is captured so well by Cambridge Scholar Eamon Duffy who wrote that fasting and abstinence remind us of the Passion of Christ, our own spiritual poverty and even, more concretely, of the material poverty of most of the human race. It reminds us of what it is like to be hungry.
When we answer the Lenten call to fasting and abstinence, Cardinal Levada wrote, we join the whole Church in commitment to Jesus on his journey to Calvary just as we stand in solidarity with the poor and the hungry of the world.
As Cardinal Levada wrote, many of us have forgotten (or maybe never knew) the nuances of fasting and abstinence so, we fished the basics from the American Catholic website. Find it at http://www.americancatholic.org.
— Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 are obliged to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. In addition, all Catholics 14 years old and older must abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and all the Fridays of Lent.
— Fasting as explained by the U.S. bishops means partaking of only one full meal. Some food (not equaling another full meal) is permitted at breakfast and around midday or in the evening – depending on when a person chooses to eat the main or full meal.
— Abstinence forbids the use of meat but not of eggs, milk products or condiments made of animal fat.
— Franciscan Father John Huels, in The Pastoral Companion, has written that abstinence does not include meat juices and liquid foods made from meat. Thus, chicken broth, consommé, soups cooked or flavored with meat, meat gravies or sauces as well as seasonings made with animal fat, are not forbidden so it is permissible to use margarine and lard or even bacon drippings which contain little bits of meat.
That being the case, good friend Nancy Howell’s marvelous Creamy Potato Soup, a favorite around our house, makes an excellent Ash Wednesday offering. Serve it with a green salad as a simple lunch or supper.
Nancy Howell’s Creamy Potato Soup
— 2 large leeks, thinly sliced
— 6 medium potatoes, diced
— 4 cups chicken broth
— 1 tsp salt
— 1 cup sour cream
— 2 cups milk
— 1 tbsp chives
In a large saucepan, combine leeks, potatoes, chicken broth and salt. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes or until the potatoes are tender. Puree the mixture in a blender or food processor. Return to the saucepan and stir in the sour cream, milk and chives. Heat gently. This recipe makes approximately 8 cups.