In almost all of Italy for Catholics but also for Christians Wednesday 22 February and the Ash Wednesday as well as the starting day of the Lent. Almost all because in Milan and in Lombardy which follows the Ambrosian rite as an alternative to the Roman one, Carnival is still celebrated and Lent will begin Sunday 26 February when the bishop of Milan monsignor Mario Delpini he will celebrate the Eucharist in the Cathedral and impose the ashes on the faithful.
Remember that you are ashes
The imposition of ashes has a symbolic meaning of the beginning of a period of penance which will end on Holy Thursday before Easter. Ashes originate in the Old Testament as a symbol of human frailty. So it is in Genesis: “He rebuked Abraham and said: ‘Behold, I begin again to speak to my Lord, I who am dust and ashes…”” (Gen 18:27). And it is also in many other biblical passages such as this one contained in the book of Wisdom: «We were born by chance and afterwards we will be as if we had not been born. The breath of our nostrils is a smoke, the thought is a spark in the flutter of our heart. Once this is extinguished, the body will become ashes and the spirit will dissipate like light air” (Wis 2, 2-3).
For whom fasting is valid: minors and those over sixty are exempt
Ash Wednesday is also a day of ecclesiastical fasting and abstinence from meat, one of the two obligatory days for Catholics (the other being Good Friday). For the Milanese and followers of the Ambrosian rite, the obligatory fast is instead moved to the first Friday of Lent. The obligation of fasting and abstinence from meat starts from the age of majority. Until 1983 it was from 21 years of age, from that year onwards the obligation applies to those who have reached the age of 18 and up to the age of 60. Therefore, all the elderly and all the sick are exempted from fasting regardless of age, and parish priests can dispense other faithful by switching fasting to other types of abstinence: for example from smoking, alcohol and even from television. Only Catholics under the age of 14 are exempt from abstinence from meat.
One meal is skipped. And in the other, fish, eggs and dairy products are allowed
It is not a radical fast that of Catholic communities: it is essentially a question of skipping a meal during the day. The law of fasting is codified in Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution “Paenitemini” and «obliges one to eat a single meal during the day, but does not prohibit taking a little food in the morning and in the evening, adhering, in terms of quantity and quality, to the approved local customs’. Abstinence from meat is an invitation to food moderation on a day of penance, and it is not as absolute as for vegans: even on Ash Wednesday, Catholics can eat eggs (in the only scheduled meal) and can eat fish like drinking milk of animal origin. Being an invitation to penance, however, the Italian bishops warn: «The law of abstinence prohibits the use of meat, as well as food and drink which, in prudent judgment, are to be considered particularly sought after and expensive” (” The Christian meaning of fasting and abstinence» – CEI pastoral note, 21 October 1994). Fish yes, but let it be poor: it makes no sense to adhere to the precept of Ash Wednesday (like that of abstinence from meat on Fridays in Lent) by having a binge of raw fish or a lobster catalana accompanied by fine wines. But fruit and vegetables can be eaten in the single meal on fasting days and on those of abstinence from meat without particular limitations.
In Lent, less smoking, alcohol, entertainment and TV
Throughout Lent, even on days when the precept does not take effect, Catholics are required according to the same pastoral note of the CEI mentioned above to observe some rules of general moderation. The following are expressly mentioned to be avoided: «food consumption without a just rule, sometimes accompanied by an intolerable waste of resources; excessive use of alcoholic beverages and smoking; an incessant search for superfluous things, uncritically accepting every fashion and every solicitation of commercial advertising; the abnormal expenses that sometimes accompany popular festivals and even some religious celebrations; the unrestrained search for forms of entertainment that do not serve the necessary psychological and physical recovery, but are ends in themselves and lead to escape from reality and one’s responsibilities; frenetic occupation, which leaves no room for silence, reflection and prayer; the exaggerated use of television and other means of communication, which can create addiction, hinder personal reflection and impede dialogue in the family”.
The rules for the Orthodox
For other non-Catholic Christians the rules are different depending on the rite. The Orthodox do not practice fasting and abstinence during holiday periods: Easter week, the week before Christmas and the week before “Great Lent”. The latter, which will start on Monday 27 February and end on Saturday 15 April, is entirely a period of fasting, as in the rest of the year Wednesdays and Fridays are. For them fasting is a ban on eating in the morning (breakfast) and after the sixth hour (lunch), while eating dinner. The abstinence from meat is total, and is also extended to fish, eggs, milk and dairy products. Wine, alcoholic beverages and olive oil are also prohibited on fast days. However, there are detailed exceptions in the liturgical calendar: if an important feast of the Lord falls in the period, fasting is suppressed. In case a Marian feast falls, fasting is mitigated and oil, wine and fish are allowed. The same happens for very important saints, while for some lower level saints only oil and wine are allowed but not meat, eggs, milk and dairy products.
This year for Anglicans “energy fasting”
For the Anglican church the rules are more similar to those of the Catholics. But in this 2023 some bishops have proposed an “energy fast”, inviting the faithful to limit carbon emissions on certain days. As? Not running the dishwasher one day a week and unscrewing at least one light bulb in a room of the house throughout Lent to replace it on Easter day with a low consumption one. The proposal came from the Anglican bishop of London, Richard Chartres and the bishop of Liverpool, James Jones.
Protestants decide each for himself
For other Protestants, starting with the Lutherans, fasting cannot be an obligation, but a personal choice of the faithful. A sort of spiritual exercise that teaches how to discipline one’s body and which must be entrusted in ways and times to the free responsibility of the faithful. However, some Protestant communities recommend practicing fasting during Lent by choosing the days of Thursday or Friday.
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