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“All May, Some Should, None Must.” Preparing for a Holy Lent.

[From the Parish Newsletter March Edition] Lent, the church’s annual season of penitence and self examination in preparation for Easter, begins on Ash Wednesday March 6. In one of most majestic openings of the year, the priest at Ash Wednesday services stands up and begins with the ancient bidding to Lent. It reminds us of our connection to something larger and longstanding, and for many Christians throughout the world, this summons to something serious are the first and familiar words of Lent: “Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom for the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting.” Which brings me to a question I get asked often as we gear up for this important season: Do Episcopalians fast in Lent? A useful dictum in our church is “All may, some should, none must.” As part of an ancient church, many Episcopalians do observe the age-old custom of fasting throughout the forty days of Lent–from certain foods, alcohol, or perhaps a behavior in our regular lives we’re not proud of. The Book of Common Prayer encourages us to observe the days of Lent with “special devotion,” committing ourselves to “acts of discipline and self-denial.” This normally includes fasting. But again, we tend as Episcopalians not to define this too strictly. When I lived upstate in a heavily Roman Catholic community, one of my favorite times of the year were Fridays in Lent. My family, friends and I would truck up to the nearby firehouse and feast on huge plates of fried fish and french fries loaded with salt and ketchup, with a side of mayonnaise-soaked coleslaw. A big bowl of ice cream concluded this decadent repast. I couldn’t believe this was all in the name of Lent. Talk about having your cake and eating it too! I probably would have benefited by reading the following little blurb in the June 1961 edition of the Parish Messenger. It’s at the end of a very serious piece on the importance of fasting, and it’s by the Rev. Wayne Schmidt, former archivist of the diocese and (back then) frequent contributor to the St. James newsletter. A word of caution is needed here. To substitute an elaborate fish dish for a meat dish is not fasting at all. It is a duty to austerity for the sake of disciplining one’s life and in remembrance that Friday is the weekly anniversary of our redemption. Each Christian must think seriously about fasting, whether to abstain in the traditional way, or whether to abstain from drink or smoking or something else. Abstinence from food is no doubt the tried and tested method, but let us remember that to substitute one kind of luxury for another (lobster for steak) in the name of fasting is hypocritical and wrong! Our duty is to fast. How we do it must become part of the total rule of life. Lobster for steak may be too obvious, but point taken. Upholding the spirit as well as the letter of the law matters–and it’s our spirit Lent seeks to transform. So whether you fast, be it from food, certain behaviors or bad habits, be sure the goal is always before you: to become closer to God, your neighbor, and maybe even yourself.