Instead of reflecting on the meaning of the ashes, I would like to rather focus my reflection on something so important in our Christian practice. It has no more value for most of us today. But this doesn’t mean that if this practice has lost its value we don’t need it anymore. I personally believe that at this time we need it more than ever. The practice I am referring to is fasting. Fasting – in catholic practice which means we eat one full meal in a day. Others out of devotion forgo food altogether, others take only bread and water throughout the day.
When we were in High school in the seminary we were always so proud during this day. Even though the food was as usual bland, we would eat it up with gusto. Why? because those in college are fasting and we want to show them that being young has its advantages too in the law and we would also like to tempt them in a way.
When I was in college whenever this day comes the first thing to be debated, the hot issue for the day is the age for fasting – is it 18 or is it 21? When its quite obvious however that one could not escape the first rule we try to evade the next – how much are we going to eat? “I will eat one plate of rice now because ordinarily I usually eat four plates in a meal!” And when we can’t escape both then we go to the next evasion technique – buy yourself a merienda, keep it, then eat it at 12:01, make sure that its really 12:01 – midnight snack.
Today lets not think about these. When we fast let us be sincere about it rather than do it because the law says so. So today I would not permit myself to be tempted to tell you who are obliged, what age and how much should you eat. I will not be tempted to tell you these things, for two reasons. First in the bible when they fast, they fast as a community – men and women, old and young, livestock, cattle, sheep, and even pets. Barring disability and a very real need, all of them, they fast together.
Second as in everything we do for the Lord, my wish is, if you do this it will be the result of a free choice, a mature decision rather than as an obligation imposed on us. You pray not because you are obliged but because you choose to pray. You go to mass not because it is an obligation on Sunday but because you choose to go as a result of a mature choice. And now you fast not because you are obliged by the church, not because your age is now included in the list, but because you choose to fast. And in order that you will choose to fast today I would like to show you some reasons why you should choose fasting.
First we fast to show our solidarity with the poor. Try eating just one full meal – no breakfast, and nothing for supper – a little for lunch. Try it – and if you feel no religious experience in doing it at least try it as an experiment. Observe what you feel. You will feel hunger, you will feel weak. With this feeling try passing by Jollibee or Ted’s batchoy and when you past by inhale the sweet aroma of chicken joy or those delicious concoction of innards and pancit. Take a very deep breath. What do you feel. If you do this today and if you experience the pangs of hunger this day know very well that that experience is endured and felt by most Filipinos not just for a day but every day of their lives. The hunger that you will feel is the same hunger that young boys and girls in the streets feel. The hunger that you will feel is the same hunger that your fellow Filipinos endure everyday of their lives. On this day we will face the fact of hunger – we will work with the same intensity, we will not rest though we will feel weak, we will savor the pangs and pains of hunger so that we will be in solidarity with the poor. This fact will lead us to the second reason why we fast.
We fast so that we may grow in compassion. We fast in order to become sensitive to what others feel. We fast so that we will feel what others feel. Fasting is a training in sensitivity. First it will teach you the difficulty of being poor, it will teach you the fear which every parents fear when they loose their work, loose their income and loose the ability to provide for their family. You will understand what your parents feel, you will understand why some people will suffer the shame of begging on the streets. You will understand why people steal, you will understand why they can cheat you, and why some of them go to prison. When you are hungry you will at times get irritated – now you will understand why people get into conflict – you get to understand the feeling, you get the feel. And then you will notice that you will not be as condemning as before, you will notice that you will be more forgiving, more patient more kind, more sensitive.
This particular feeling of compassion can really bear fruit if the parish or communities we are in can provide us a way of expressing this in the concrete. For example the budget we have planned for this day may go to a parish fund that will help the needy, provide capital for the poor, buy medicines for the sick or help those in prison.
There are still other reasons – some do it for its health benefit – you fast once in a while so that the body can cleanse itself, to get rid of the impurities in our system. Some people fast to discipline themselves because they say that if you can’t discipline your craving for food what can you discipline then? It can be true, for in fasting you practice saying no to yourself. My body wants me to do this but I say no to it. I impose discipline on myself, on my body, on my impulses, on my instincts.
We Catholics do it primarily for penance – we fast to do penance. That is why we fast as ashes are imposed on our foreheads – the sign of penance is the ashes that is imposed – it is a sign and we fast to complement the sign that we are really intent in reforming our lives and making up for our past. With fasting, the imposition of ashes and the penance it signify becomes more significant, more determined and more resolute.
Fasting - to eat or not to eat – it is your choice. I wish that you would choose the good. As we begin lent with the imposition of ashes we are reminded of the beauty of an age-old practice we have neglected for so long. Today let us rediscover this practice and its meaning to our lives.