Should we observe our Lenten fasts on Sunday?
It has finally come again. The Season of , I am speaking of. I always find it a relief. Many folks are surprised to hear me say that. I think of a scene from the vintage 1970s biopic “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.” St. Francis has shed his clothing and is making a ruckus in the piazza below the . The – depicted as an obese and aloof aristocrat – is about to bite into a turkey leg when one of his clerical aides rushes in and calls for his help to disburse the crowd that has gathered to take in the spectacle. The sets down his turkey leg, sighs and says, “Oh, I just got over !” This is often how the world looks at these six weeks in which we are called to acts of prayer, fasting and . For anyone who has ever engaged the season in the spirit of repentance and with a desire to grow in holiness, however, you should hear a different tune.
Isa challenge? To be sure, but it is a challenge to greatness. I am reminded of the passage from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.” (Several years ago, the graduating eighth graders at St. James school wanted to offer a parting gift to their school, and they wanted to bring a more Christian atmosphere to the gymnasium. This was their parting gift, emblazoned at the center of the basketball court.) When training for a marathon or a big game, athletes think nothing of self-denial. In fact, they do it joyfully, because they know that whatever they “sacrifice” it will be to their benefit in competition. In one discussion about fasting, I was surprised to hear one man say that when he was growing up, they didn’t fast or abstain from meat because his parents “thought it was a stupid rule”. On the other hand, he said he would often fast to make weight for his wrestling matches. I write that not to criticize the man who said it, but to point out that the world holds up certain values and will encourage us to do whatever we must to attain to those values. Many in the world will criticize or demean religious people for making similar sacrifices to discipline the will and to be more attuned to the spiritual life. If we view this season as a burden with no positive benefit, then our acts of prayer, fasting and are senseless and in vain. On the other hand, if we see this as a time of intense training which engages the body, mind and soul and helps to equip us in our journey to holiness, then we cannot help but be joyful in this time of challenge.
is characterized, in the minds of most people, as the time to “give something up.” Of course that is one way of describing the “fasting” component. But to speak merely in terms of “giving up” is to miss the point of the fast. When I fast I am disciplining my appetites – whether for food, drink, pleasure, sex, etc. – but I am also making a sacrifice. I was recently reminded by a wise old priest whom I use as my confessor on a regular basis, that sacrifice is necessarily an act of worship, by which we take that which we hold dear, that which we treasure, and give it to God. We do not give to God that which is less than pleasing to us, just as a lame animal would not be worthy of Sacrificial worship, so our sacrifice should be nothing less than that which we treasure, and it’s absence in our life will cause us some pain, but that void will be filled with the greater good of knowing that our highest treasure is God, and our fasting is a means to draw nearer to – or, rather to be drawn nearer by – Him whom we seek. Further, consider that the term sacrifice is derived from two Latin words: sacra and facere. Sacra is the root of the English cognate “Sacred” which means “Holy” or “set aside for a holy purpose.” Facere is a Latin word meaning “to make.” Consider that it is the root of the term “factory” a place where “things” are made. Put together, sacrafacere or “sacrifice” should also be understood as a means of “making Holy” or, in the case of sacrifices we offer to God, a means by which we allow God to fashion us in holiness.
When considering what one may do as a sacrifice for, it is possible to “fast” from any number of things, including food, media, entertainment, alcohol, etc. Of course fasting is but one of the three components of , the other two being prayer and . Prayer may take many forms both public, private, devotional and liturgical. likewise may take any number of forms of “giving” specifically to alleviate the plight of the poor. One may unite his fasting with his by taking that which he might have spent on forsaken food, entertainment, etc. and giving that to the poor as an . Another form of may take the form or visiting the home-bound or hospitalized, or giving one’s time in service to the poor – perhaps directly, for example by working in a shelter or soup kitchen, or indirectly, by sorting clothes in a charity thrift shop, or some other such work.
One question I have often encountered is the one which I have chosen as the title for this reflection, “Do Sunday’s count?” The implication is that Sunday, being a “little Easter” might be a day to relax one’s penance (i.e. “fasting”) and celebrate the resurrection. Some people will even point out that if we were to count up the days betweenand Easter Sunday, we would come up with the number 46 – remove the
6 Sundays ofand you are left with the proverbial “Forty Days” (in Latin this season is officially called Quadragesima which means “Forty Days”). This may be a legitimate interpretation, but it seems to me to be based a bit too much on legalistic numerology! I have often seen the term “Forty Days” as a figure which calls to mind the time Jesus spent in the desert and the forty years that Israel spent wandering in the wilderness before entering the promised land. This use of a nice even number shouldn’t be seen as an exact figure either, since the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite (aka the “traditional Latin Mass”) observes Quinquagesima, Sexagesima and Septuagesima Sundays which correspond respectively to the 3 weeks prior to the start of , even though the names literally denote 50, 60 and 70 days! Furthermore, even if Sundays are like “a little Easter” the Church clearly includes them, liturgically-speaking as part of . In fact, they are known by their order in this sacred season – “the First Sunday of ” etc. And the liturgy is toned down to reflect the more somber nature of the season (The and are omitted from the Sunday Mass and the is not prayed by those who pray the ).
Since one may choose whatever acts of prayer, fasting andone wishes to offer as a sacrifice, then I suppose one is free to determine how that will take shape. We are called to pay special attention to penance during this holy season, but the Church – apart from a few minimal requirements of fasting and abstinence – does not strictly outline what is to be done and how they are to be observed. Likewise if one wishes to relax his penance for Sundays, he is free to do so. Others may choose to observe the same sacrifice for the whole of , Sundays included. I posed the question, “do Sundays count?” to several parishioners and was moved by the response of one man who re-discovered the Catholic faith of his baptism when he was already married with children in his late twenties. He said that, given the potential for growth in holiness, he couldn’t see why he would want to “take Sundays off.” I tend to agree with him and generally follow suit – the two exceptions being when the of St. Joseph and the Annunciation fall during the season of . These feasts are exceptional in that the is called to be sung during the Mass (though the is still omitted) and the is to be sung in the . Based on those liturgical cues, it seems reasonable that one may find reason to relax his penance as a short break.
Regardless of how one may choose to answer the question, “Do Sundays count?” I hope that each of you have prayerfully considered (or will do so in the coming days) what means you plan to use during thisseason to grow in Holiness. Or, rather, to allow the Lord to increase in your heart the capacity to return His Love!
So how about it, “Do Sundays count?” Let’s talk about it.