Fasting to find renewal and meaning

Elizabeth Shewan, Staff writer

This past week marked the beginning of the season of Lent for Christians. Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday and lasts for 40 days leading up to Easter Sunday, is as a symbolic representation of the time that Jesus spent in the desert. This year, Ash Wednesday fell on Feb. 14, coinciding with Valentine’s Day — to the dismay of some who wanted to both enjoy the holiday chocolate, but also fast in observance of the beginning of Lent.

Lent is, for Christians and particularly Catholics, a penitential season of fasting and praying. It is, however, preceded by Mardi Gras, which is French for “Fat Tuesday.”

In contrast to Lent, Mardi Gras is a day of indulgence and fun, anticipating the sacrifices to come during the Lenten season. Mardi Gras is especially popular in New Orleans, but was also celebrated at Mercyhurst with a special dinner at the Grotto Commons and programs in each freshman hall, sponsored by Campus Ministry.

Following Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday serves as a reminder of human mortality, in which Catholic Mass and Protestant services are attended. Individuals are marked with ashes as a reminder of their limited time on earth. In this spirit of humility, sacrifice begins: Catholics typically fast and abstain from meat, while other denominations may choose to fast in alternative ways.

James Piszker, University Chaplain, welcomes the season of Lent as an opportunity to look to one’s spiritual life. One typical Lenten tradition involves “giving up” something for Lent, either material or behavioral — chocolate or gossiping, for example.

“It came more out of personal piety than the church saying ‘you have to give up something for Lent,’” Piszker said.

The way Lent is practiced varies between denominations of Christianity, and between and even within Catholic communities. For Piszker, the real question is not how one observes Lent, but why.

“I think the challenge today is for people to ask why they’re doing it. … The whole reason for observance is to work on your spiritual life,” said Piszker.
Piszker also commented in the irony surrounding the beginning of Lent — Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation.

“The irony of Ash Wednesday, if there is one, … is that people think it’s a holy day of obligation. It’s not and it never has been, and yet we get more people that come out on Ash Wednesday than just about any other special day of the year,” Piszker said.

This distinction is important, because the choice to observe Lent is most meaningful when made completely freely. Altogether, the season of Lent is a good opportunity for students of all religious backgrounds to take some time for introspection and working on personal growth.