On a flight recently, the man beside me refused the tiny snack that only AI freely serves. Instead, he announced: “Mein fasting kar raha hoon; ‘fasting food’ hai?” The little snack surely seemed to have fasting proportions. But my neighbour wanted other tidbits — Fruits? Nuts? Dahi — that had the airhostesses shrugging their heads. Then, one advised: “Extra mithai and soft drink?” Finally, sour-faced, he gobbled some mithais and a drink.
Fasting. prayer. almsgiving — are three sadhanas prescribed for Christians worldwide during a 40-day period called “Lent” climaxing with Easter. Today, popularly called “Ash Wednesday”, Christians will go to church to receive a smearing of ash on their foreheads, made with the sign of the Cross and the reminder: “Remember, dust you are and unto dust you shall return!” or “Repent, and believe in the Gospel!”
In religious tradition, ash symbolises mortality, death, renunciation and repentance. Many believers have ashes smeared on their foreheads.
After death, whether cremated and buried, all that remains of us are ashes. Made with the sign of the Cross, ash reminds us of Jesus’ death, which led to his resurrection, and the need for a turnaround from our self-destructive behaviours in order to promote true life.
In his “Sermon on the Mount” Jesus gives clear instructions not on the “quantity” or measure of fasting, prayer and almsgiving but on “quality”; i.e., their meaning and motive. These spiritual disciplines should be done: (a) in secret without boasting; (b) with a generous and happy disposition; and, (c) keeping not oneself, but God and one’s neighbours in focus.
Teaching about the inner attitude required for Lent, Pope Francis says: “Fasting means changing our attitudes towards others and all of creation, turning away from the temptation to ‘devour’ everything to satisfy our greed and being ready to suffer for love, which can fill the emptiness of our hearts.”
“Prayer,” Pope Francis adds, “teaches us to abandon idolatry and the self-sufficiency of our ego, and to acknowledge our need for God and God’s mercy.” He continues: “Almsgiving helps us to avoid the insanity of hoarding everything for ourselves in the illusory belief that we can secure a future that does not belong to us.”
Pope Francis finally concludes: “Let’s leave behind our selfishness and self-absorption, and turn around to God. Let’s stand beside our brothers and sisters in need, sharing our spiritual and material goods with them.”
Ash Wednesday commemorations could help us not only to eat “fasting food” like that demanded by my flight-friend, but also to avoid unhealthy “fast food”. Moreover, we could fast from gossip. Why not reduce time spent on mobile-talk? Perhaps less shopping and more donating to charities? Whatever we do, let’s do it secretly; with a smile.