Ash Wednesday is Here; Broaching the Subject of Fasting, Faith, and Health

Worshipers pray during an Ash Wednesday Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, on March 6, 2019. AP Photo/Matt Rourke

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Ash Wednesday is here, and the relevance to fasting is back at the forefront, not anymore a back-burner matter. Is fasting beneficial to our overall health, or is it a mere ceremonial observation to fulfil the Church’s proclamation? This discourse traverses the historical significance of Ash Wednesday, how the Roman Catholic interprets it, and quizzes whether science validates its importance.

Ash Wednesday, in Western Christianity, is the first day of Lent, occurring six and a half weeks before Easter (between February 4 and March 11, depending on the date of Easter). Ash Wednesday is a solemn reminder of human mortality and the need for reconciliation with God and marks the beginning of the penitential Lenten season. It is commonly observed with ashes and fasting. Eastern Orthodox churches begin Lent on Clean Monday and do not observe Ash Wednesday.

In the early Christian Church, the Lenten celebration‘s length varied, but it eventually began six weeks (42 days) before Easter. This provided only 36 days of fasting (excluding Sundays). In the 7th century, four days were added before the first Sunday in Lent to establish 40 fasting days in imitation of Jesus Christ’s fast in the desert.

It was the practice in Rome for penitents and grievous sinners to begin their period of public penance on the first day of Lent in preparation for their restoration to the sacrament of the Eucharist. They were sprinkled with ashes, dressed in sackcloth, and obliged to remain apart until they were reconciled with the Christian community on Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter. When these practices fell into disuse (8th–10th century), the beginning of the penitential season of Lent was symbolized by placing ashes on the heads of the entire congregation.

So, Church doctrine ties fasting with remission of sin. The sinner ought to afflict his soul by deprivation of food, the pleasures of this life that he may acknowledge that man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. This is in line with the forty days Christ Jesus fasted in the desert where Satan ferociously tested him, but He overcame him by the power of the scripture.

Read Related: Roman Catholic Church’s Stance on Blessing Same-Sex Couples: Can We Bless Sinners?

So, during fasting, we become weaker, and Satan exploits our weaknesses to separate us from the love of God. Fasting is a moment of reckoning. Satan strives against humanity out of envy because he knows fully well God loves us unconditionally. When we sin against Him, He chastens us as the Father who teaches His children to live according to His will.

Fasting to carry any meaning must be continuous, not limited by fulfilling Church instructions. Since fasting is disciplining the soul that may not be derailed from the will of God, it cannot be reduced into a matter of annual festivity observations to please the Church but a concerted effort to rein in soul potential misconduct.

Based on this observation, fasting must be part of a believer’s daily routine to help improve one’s health. It must be deemed a form of spiritual and sensual exercise. A daily exercise regime betters one’s health compared to exercise done once in a blue moon. Exercise programs the body to behave in a certain way, and once it conforms to that routine, it sticks to it and becomes profitable.

The advantages of fasting are many. For instance, sticking religiously to a fasting program produces endurance and perseverance, yielding discipline. Discipline is a proven antidote against procrastination that yanks us away from our sworn annual diaries. Deferment is our worst enemy, and fasting keeps it from messing up our plans.

According to science, fasting is also associated with replacing dead cells, particularly those in the brain. Poor dietary intake, inactivity and immunodeficiency syndromes tend to join forces to destroy brain cells through inaction and toxicity, and alternative medicine specialists have recommended fasting to pedal back such debilitating effects of brain cell deaths that are behind Alzheimer’s and other mental-related ailments. This subject is assailed with controversy, which is beyond the purview of this subject.

Apostles of abstinence, fasting, and masculinity have been on the receiving end for decades, swiped for promoting fabled narratives not supported by science. But the question still lingers: can they be dead correct or parading partial truths? Is there any correlation between leading a life of self-denial and masculinity?

Can dead cells in the loins find redemption and resurgence when one eats and drinks less and less? We are unsure, and common sense suggests that any correlation is very remote. The bony one becomes from eating less, the skinner, every part of his body, tends to become, and loins are not spared from this factual reality. But can the diminished genitals be more robust in virility, although malnourishment is a discussion for another day?

But perhaps the most crucial benefit of regularised fasting is pursuing higher goals that are unrealized in carnal life. Fasting prioritizes reincarnation and offers powerful reasons to abhor persecution, the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of earthly riches that team up together to separate us from the everlasting love of God.

So, should we fast regularly? The answer is yes. To overcome the devil’s wiles, we need to have a different meaning of life other than carnal enjoyment. The less we indulge in the pleasures of this world, the more God assumes centre stage in our lives. The more God rules our hearts, the less we are obsessed with a propensity to sinful nature, and we lead lives filled with joy, contentment and peace. These values are more valuable than seeking materialism at the expense of our happiness, serenity and satisfaction with whatever God has seen fit to bless us.

Most often, we either forget or are unaware that this life is granted by divine ordination, and we do not have the power to flip it to suit our wild inclinations without incurring the highest penalty to our souls and our flesh. This is why the Lord Christ Jesus queried who could add a cubit size to his stature through his hassling. Nobody, unless it is given to us by the Father of lights whose generosity knows no bounds to those who fear Him from generation to generation.

As we welcome Ash Wednesday, we should reflect upon its true meaning and consciously adopt it as part and parcel of the necessary regime we need to better our lives. Fast regularly, not when the Church urges you to be where you go without fear of retribution.

The author is a Development Administration specialist in Tanzania with over 30 years of practical experience, and has been penning down a number of articles in local printing and digital newspapers for some time now.

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