Fasting is a practice which is common to most religions. While Christians are observing lent, Baha'is are also fasting- from 1st - 21st March and for them it's also a preparation for a new beginning, in this instance their new year. The Baha'i fast is like the Muslim fast during Ramadan in that it lasts from sunrise to sunset with no food or drink during day light hours. For Muslims, this can be quite severe if it takes place as it does this year during summer with daylight hours in Scotland lasting for fifteen to sixteen hours. For Baha'is taking place as it does around the equinox the daylight hours are not so long. Religions like Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism don't have their fasting seasons as such but have specific days and occasions on which they fast.
The only religion that doesn't promote fasting is Sikhism, believing that moderation in all things means no need for fasting. This is a good lesson for those of us who belong to religions that do fast. As a spiritual practice it's a good thing but like all practice it's not an end in itself. If it doesn't lead to a deepening of spirituality and a growth in love and compassion then it's not worth very much and is simply empty religiosity. Sikhism reminds us not to absolutise any religious practice or see it as an end in itself. It's easy to focus on externals and think of ourselves as holy and virtuous while neglecting our neighbour. Religious practice can easily turn us inwards instead of outwards towards others.
The lenten journey begins with Ash Wednesday and for Catholics the tradition is to have the mark of an ash cross applied to the forehead . The ash comes from the burning of palms used on Palm Sunday and is symbolic of an old custom of wearing sack cloth and ashes to show sorrow for sin and wrongdoing. This indicates the importance of recognising our sinfulness and willingness to engage in some kind of practice which will help us live a better and fuller life. For me the words said as the ashes are applied are important and significant. There are two possibilities. The older one is 'Remember that you are dust and into dust you shall return'. This I prefer for it's good for all of us to realise, I think, our creatureliness. We are made of the same dust (and scientists tell us that this is star dust) as all other creatures and in spite of any pride we might have in our own importance or accomplishments we will go the way of all the earth and return to that dust from which we came. None of us can escape it. This the great leveler, the reality that puts our lives into perspective, that reminds us of our relationship to the rest of creation. To abuse it is to abuse ourselves. To live our lives in the face of death is to make the most of the giftedness of our precious human existence, to accept each day as it comes moment by moment, breath by breath, to try to live in a way that will promote compassion, justice, love, goodness.
The second phrase used at the distribution of ashes takes up this theme. It's ' Repent and believe the good news'. And what is the good news? - that the kingdom of God is not far from any of us - it's in our very midst. Some people don't like the term 'kingdom of God' but I'm used to it. For me it's obvious whenever and wherever people are struggling to overcome disability, poverty, oppression, violence, injustice, discrimination, marginalisation, inequality etc; whenever and wherever people are trying to make sense of their human lives and do the best they can with what life has given them; whenever and wherever people are generously and even heroically helping others and making life better simply by who they are and what they do; whenever people are trying to live a balanced and moderate life and use responsibly the world's resources. In fact the kingdom is everywhere. Someone once said that Christians ought to be kingdom spotters. To spot the kingdom, made visible by its values of justice and peace, is to see it everywhere and in the most unexpected of places. To spot the kingdom is to have hope that a better future is possible in spite of what would appear to be evidence to the contrary.
Come to think of it that in itself would make quite a good lenten practice. I think I'll try it.