The Common Good

Ash Wednesday: How Fasting and Prayer Could Change Us — and Our Country

Photo by Jeff Pioquinto, SJ / Flickr.com
Photo by Jeff Pioquinto, SJ / Flickr.com

Today is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. I grew up in a small evangelical church that only paid attention to the Christian calendar on Christmas and Easter. But over many years now, I have learned to celebrate the richness of all the Christian seasons from my friends in more liturgical traditions and from marrying a Church of England priest!

Lent offers us the much-needed spiritual preparation for Easter. Ash Wednesday is the place to begin; and that often includes fasting — in different ways and traditions. At Sojourners, we usually have a big staff pancake breakfast on Shrove Tuesday morning, the day before Ash Wednesday. But today, many of us are fasting.

Ash Wednesday doesn’t begin a hunger strike, but rather a season of self-examination, spiritual reflection, repentance, sacrifice, and focused prayer. Lent is a time to examine our hearts and lives, to acknowledge our sins, to look for the ways we are not choosing the gospel or welcoming those whom Jesus calls us to.

As Christ suffers with us in our sin and spiritual poverty, we are slowly taught how to suffer with others and mourn with those who mourn. Lent is a time for that. That’s why Lenten disciplines often contain fasting and decisions of self-denial.

In On Keeping a Holy Lent , evangelical Craig R. Higgins writes:

“Lent, as a season of preparation, is traditionally focused on repentance. Speaking biblically, to repent means to make a change in our attitudes, words, and lifestyles. As 16th century reformer Martin Luther taught, the Christian life in its totality is a life of repentance. Beginning when we first commit our lives to Christ, and continuing throughout our lives, we are more and more turning away from sin and self-centeredness and more and more turning to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Even though a repentant spirit should mark all we do, it is still appropriate that certain times be set aside for a particular focus on repentance. The church has traditionally done this at the Lenten season (and, to a lesser extent, in the pre-Christmas season of Advent).

Lent, therefore, is a time for focusing on the heart, a time for asking questions about our spiritual health:

  • What are my characteristic sins, and how can I work and pray for change?
  • What idols have captured my imagination so that my love for the living God has grown cold?
  • In what ways is my devotion to Christ and his church less than wholehearted?

The Lenten season is the spiritual equivalent of an annual physical exam; it's a time to take stock of our lives, our hearts.”

Here’s what Pope Francis says about Lent:

“God did not let our salvation drop down from heaven, like someone who gives alms from their abundance out of a sense of altruism and piety. Christ’s love is different! When Jesus stepped into the waters of the Jordan and was baptized by John the Baptist, he did so not because he was in need of repentance, or conversion; he did it to be among people who need forgiveness, among us sinners, and to take upon himself the burden of our sins. In this way he chose to comfort us, to save us, to free us from our misery. … Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty. Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt. “

This year, many of us in the Christian community are choosing to fast every Wednesday in Lent, beginning with this Ash Wednesday, to open our hearts and our nation to the undocumented immigrants among us, whom Christ calls us to welcome.

We stand just on the brink of fixing a broken immigration system, but we need the disciplines of prayer and fasting to finish this vital journey of change. We fast for ourselves and for those suffering immigrants who are in real bondage to the current system; but we also fast for our political leaders who are in bondage to a broken political system that seems unable to do its job. Fasting and prayer must take us all deeper now.

Two Fast for Families buses are on the road now on northern and southern routes through 70 congressional districts; and you can follow their path and welcome them if they come through your community. Those on the buses will be fasting every Wednesday along with the people they are visiting and with the rest of us.

Also consider supporting our work for immigration reform by donating what you would have spent on your day's meals. The gift of your resources — in addition to your prayers, advocacy, and activism — helps to sustain this movement to "welcome the stranger.”

It’s time to go deeper into our hearts and lives, through repentance and conversion; Lent is a gift to help us do that. This year, many of us will be focusing on amplifying the cries of the poor and welcoming the strangers among us in our own lives, communities, and even the lives of our political leaders. Let us pray. ​

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners . His book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good, is now available. Watch the Story of the Common Good HERE . Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

Photo by Jeff Pioquinto, SJ / Flickr.com

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