Auf Deutsch, Lent is Fastenzeit. Fasting-time. And the readings for Ash Wednesday invite us to this discipline as part of our "return," our repentance.
But how does one fast? As Lutheran Christians we know that there can be no laws about HOW to fast in the Church for the simple reason that neither our Lord nor the Holy Apostles have given us any. There have always been divergent practices on fasting in the Church. Not without reason did St. Irenaeus confess "differences in fasting do not destroy the unity of faith."
Further, we know that fasting is not pleasing to God when it is offered in any way as a propitiation for sin; then, in fact, it becomes an abomination. There is but one propitiation for the sin of the world and that was offered once and for all by the Lamb of God upon the cross.
So why should we fast? We have to think no further than our Catechism: fasting is "a fine outward training." Now, that was spoken in regard to the Eucharistic fast, but it applies to fasting as a whole. On Septuagesima we heard St. Paul speak of how he disciplined his body, kept it under control, lest he end up being "disqualified" after preaching to others.
Well, if we can admit that fasting is a "fine outward training" the question still arises of what to do?
Many people confuse fasting and abstinence. To fast is to be hungry; to abstain is forego certain kinds of food. The traditional fast of the Western Church was 1/4 meal for breakfast and lunch, with a simple dinner. In other words, for breakfast maybe half a slice of toast, for lunch an orange. Then a regular dinner - but nothing fancy. Something like that was observed throughout the days of Lent. Further, Western Christians have traditionally abstained from meat and wine on the Fridays (and sometimes the Saturdays, and some would say the Wednesdays - all depend on whom you ask) of Lent.
Now, fasting was never meant to live by itself. It is joined to the other two Lenten disciplines: almsgiving and prayer. An increased giving to the poor and an increased time of prayer can go hand in hand with fasting: by not eating so much, you actually have more money to give to others who have less than you, and by not fixing elaborate meals, you also have more time to spend in the Word and prayer. Further, by going hungry each day you experience solidarity with those many members of the human race who also go hungry each day. Above all, we teach ourselves that the hunger behind all hungers is the hunger for God Himself.
In the freedom of the Gospel, we can discipline our wayward flesh by not letting it dictate to us what and when to eat. Give it some thought and prayer and then rejoice in the truth that "man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." Wishing one and all a joyful time of renewal during the upcoming Fastenzeit!