Ash Wednesday is March 6. That means Lent is fast approaching. Until 1970 the Church observed what it called pre-Lent. It is a tradition that was celebrated in both lungs of the Church east and west. In 1970 the Catholic Church suppressed it. It is a true tragedy it was suppressed. The idea behind pre-Lent is that our penances of abstinence and fasting begin slowly. We slowly ease into a penitential state rather than abruptly begin on Ash Wednesday. This Sunday (February 17) is actually the beginning of pre-Lent. Until 1970 this Sunday was called Septuagesima Sunday, which means 70. It means from today’s Mass there are 70 days until the completion of the Easter Octave. For our ancestors food was nowhere nearly as readily available and abundant as we have it today. So the idea behind pre-Lent was to eat up all the forbidden foods so they wouldn’t spoil during Lent.
The Eastern Orthodox Christians have held on to a very ancient and venerable tradition that we in the west over the past century or so have discarded: Meat-fare and Cheese-fare weeks. From today in the East they spend the whole week ahead until next Sunday (what they call Meat-fare Sunday) eating all the meat in the house. After Meat-fare Sunday (next Sunday) they don’t buy or eat meat again until Easter. Then after next Sunday’s Meat-fare Sunday they begin eating all the cheese and dairy in the house. That Sunday after Meat-fare Sunday is called Cheese-fare Sunday. So for our Eastern Christian brethren there is no meat or dairy eaten at all until Easter! We western Christians used to follow this custom. In fact during Holy Week the Eastern Christians are encouraged to only eat raw vegetables and nothing cooked. What a remedy for our food-obsessed times the ancient pre-Lent and Lenten fasts would be! Does that scare you?
Strange enough, our modern science is starting to look at fasting. The diet industry is afraid because it turns out the best way to lose weight isn’t through expensive shakes or frozen-shipped foods at our doorstep filled with preservatives and sodium. Science is discovering what the ancients knew as the secret to obesity: fasting. The ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle would fast for a few days before they engaged in a debate. Fasting is not starvation. Fasting is choosing not to eat. Starvation is being forced not to eat. Science tells us when we fast an amazing thing happens in our body. Instead of our body burning and eating muscle, our body burns its fat stores. Our food industry has been very good at getting us all to think if we miss a meal we will shrivel up and starve. In reality science shows in fasting our body releases growth hormone which preserves muscle. Our fat stores are actually our body’s fuel during times of food scarcity. The human race would not have survived times of famine if our body immediately cannibalized muscle.
Perhaps for us all this coming Lent is a way to have a more healthy relationship with food. Or to put it in a more ancient Christian maxim: Before we can feast, we must fast! -Fr. W.