Today is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the 40-day period of Lent.
The three traditional Lenten practices are fasting, prayer and almsgiving.
For many of us who grew up Catholic, our childhood fasting during Lent took the form of giving up some favorite food item. (“What are you giving up?” was one of the most frequently asked questions of the season.) Giving up chocolate was common. Or soft drinks. The really daring might vow to forego all desserts. The habits of childhood often last well into adulthood; my sister still gives up chocolate every year for Lent and one of my friends gives up beer each Lent.
There is, of course, value to the discipline of fasting, especially if we do more than the current Catholic requirement for fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, which is not really all that onerous. (One full meal and two small meals that together are less than one full meal. And feeling hunger when we fast reminds us of the condition many people live with daily, and not as a matter of choice.
But the Book of Isaiah tells us that that is not necessarily the fasting God seeks of us:
Do you call this a fast acceptable to the Lord? This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.
Here are some other suggestions for meaningful fasting during Lent: