This Wednesday we begin the 40 days of Lent, in which we metaphorically go through the desert with Our Lord in preparation for Easter. Lent began as a way for new converts to prepare for Baptism at the Easter Vigil with prayer and fasting. These practices eventually spread to the rest of the Church. Last week, I posted an article about the liturgical changes that come with Lent. Today, we’ll discuss Lenten Devotionals and Fasting/Abstinence.
Many people include additional devotional reading during Lent as a way to set aside more of our time for the Lord, especially in the context of our prayer or quiet time with Him. As we have noted in our bulletin, our own Lillie Amman has written a devotional that we are commending to the whole congregation. Each of the 40 days includes a Scripture, reflections, a prayer, and is about a single page long. You can download Lillie’s The Light of Christ here
In previous years, I’ve read through parts of the two Books of Homilies during Lent. In 2018, my good friend Fr. Kurt Hein, Rector of Light of Christ Anglican Church in Georgetown, TX, published a modern-English adaptation of the most important of these Homilies as a Lenten devotional. Each reading is also about a page long and covers some of my favorite content from the English Reformation. You can download The Homilies for the Modern World: Lenten Meditations 2018 here. Of course, you would have to update the dates for 2021, but it shouldn’t be too difficult.
Most Lents over the past decade or so, I have done my additional devotions from a reading plan from churchyear.net covering several of the Church Fathers. This is a bit longer than the other two devotions at about 10-15 minutes per day. It has been very edifying to me to revisit the Fathers during Lent, especially the first half or so. I would recommend this for anyone who has never experienced the Fathers before. You can download the “Church Fathers Lenten Reading Plan” as a PDF or eBook here.
Fasting and Abstinence
The Book of Common Prayer declares the Forty Days of Lent, the Ember Days, and All Fridays in the Year (except Christmas Day, Epiphany, or their Octaves) as “Other days of Fasting, on which the Church requires such a measure of abstinence as is more especially suited to extraordinary acts and exercises of devotion.” However, the Prayer Book doesn’t tell us what this looks like! Fortunately, there are some common customs that clarify things a bit.
Generally, Fasting includes limiting what we eat, both in terms of the kinds of food we eat and the amounts we eat. Our Roman Catholic friends define this as a single small meal during the day with no meat, and up to two snack-sized meals that together don’t equate to a single meal. While our tradition does not define things so precisely, this is a good rule-of-thumb for those up to the challenge. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are traditionally considered days of fasting by this definition.
Generally, Abstinence includes limiting the kinds of food we eat, though not necessarily the quantity. The most common of such customs in North America is to give up meat and poultry on Fridays. This is where the widespread Friday fish fries come from, including at some parishes. Additionally, many people will pick something else to give up for the full forty days of Lent, such as sweets, alcohol, or coffee.
For both Fasting and Abstinence, the idea is that Christians are to submit our desires and passions to the Lord; we are not slaves to our bodies and their urges. When we give these things up, we want to turn our minds to God rather than give something up just for the sake of giving it up. After all, objectively speaking, food is a non-issue when it comes to the Gospel. As we give up some of these foods or habits, we should be giving up sinful patterns as well. Fasting without repentance and prayer may be physically healthy from time-to-time, but it does nothing for us spiritually.
One final note: This should go without saying, but it is not healthy for children and the ill to fast. But for those who are medically unable to fast, simplifying one’s meal within the doctor’s guidelines can also be a Lenten discipline.