Lent is nearly upon us.
The Roman Catholic General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar (GNLYC) advise in no. 27 that “Lent is a preparation for the celebration of Easter. For the Lenten liturgy disposes both catechumens and the faithful to celebrate the paschal mystery: catechumens, through the several stages of Christian initiation; the faithful, through reminders of their own baptism and through penitential practices.”
The 1983 Code of Canon Law specifies some of these “penitential practices”:
Can. 1251 Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Can. 1252 The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parent are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.
In their 1966 Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence (still in effect), the bishops of the United States wrote that “we preserved for our dioceses the tradition of abstinence from meat on each of the Fridays of Lent, confident that no Catholic Christian will lightly hold himself excused from this penitential practice.”
In many places, abstinence from meat on *all* Fridays is no longer practiced and one can question whether anything meaningful has taken its place. Fasting and abstinence persist to some degree in Lent, however. Indeed, the readings for Ash Wednesday Mass in the Roman Catholic Church mention fasting from food six times! Worth noting as well is that the reading from Joel 2 connects the penitential practice of fasting with assembling, gathering, congregating. The fast is a shared endeavor:
Blow the trumpet in Zion!
proclaim a fast,
call an assembly;
Gather the people,
notify the congregation;
Assemble the elders,
gather the children
and the infants at the breast;
Let the bridegroom quit his room
and the bride her chamber.
I think that the quality of fasting as a shared endeavor has particular resonance in Lent 2021. Many of us will not, in fact, be with the assembly when the reading from Joel is proclaimed. Many of us have had little or no physical presence in the worshiping assembly for eleven months now. However, even if we are not physically gathered to hear the call to fasting—and setting aside for the moment the virtual gathering that will serve as a substitute—fasting and abstinence are practices that unite us with all who are engaging in fast and abstinence in this season. Of course, this was always true. Those who fasted in Canada in years past were united with those who fasted in the Philippines and Germany and Australia, etc. Yet now when Christians face limits even on their local gatherings, these penitential practices as shared efforts take on a new meaning.
Worth noting as well is that Joel 2 is not mandated in all Christian churches for Ash Wednesday. The Episcopal Church, for example, presents Isaiah 58 as another option, including vv. 6-7:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
In our time of racial and economic injustice exacerbated by a deadly pandemic, surely there are many bonds to be loosed and many thongs to be undone. For this reason, we should keep in mind no. 110 of the GNLYC: “During Lent penance should not be only internal and individual, but also external and social. The practice of penance should be fostered in ways that are possible in our own times and in different regions.”
Let us consider ways of practicing penance that are possible in our time and in our regions.