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Christians take up fasting for Ukraine on Ash Wednesday

Myroslava, who declined to give her last name, holds a special pamphlet with a prayer for peace in Ukraine during a service before Lent at the Ukrainian Catholic National Shrine of the Holy Family in Washington on Feb. 27. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)
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Pope Francis and other Christian leaders around the globe have encouraged believers to fast and pray for Ukrainians on Ash Wednesday, a day when many Christians are reminded of their mortality with a swipe of ashes to their foreheads.

The last two years have led clergy scrambling to find ways to distribute ashes safely during the pandemic. This year, Christian leaders’ attention has turned to the recent attacks from Russia on Ukraine with calls for prayers for peace.

“May the Queen of Peace preserve the world from the madness of war,” Pope Francis wrote in his call for fasting.

The ancient Christian practice of fasting allows believers to heighten their senses and focus their spiritual energies, said the Rev. Mark Morozowich, a theologian at the Catholic University of America. He said that Ukrainian Catholics like him began Lent on Monday, unlike Roman Catholics who begin on Wednesday, but different groups of Christians will be engaged in similar spiritual acts during the Lenten period.

“The world is called to deeper prayer,” said Morozowich, who is dean of CU’s School of Theology and Religious Studies. “As we continue to stand by our Ukrainian brothers and sisters, and as the world shows to Russian authorities that this is intolerable, we have the chance to ... try to build a world that’s built on mutual respect and order, not based on tyranny and fear, one that is built on respect and love for our fellow human beings.”

For Christians who observe Lent, including President Biden who is Catholic, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the period of weeks leading up to Easter Sunday, which most Christians in the United States will celebrate on April 17. The weeks of Lent serve as a period of reflection on the biblical story of Jesus’s time in the desert, where he fasted and prayed before his death and resurrection.

Although most Americans who celebrate Lent will begin on Wednesday, the majorities of people living in Russia and Ukraine belong to Orthodox Christian wings of Christianity, most of whom will begin Lent on March 7 and end on the day they celebrate Easter, April 24.

During Lent, many Catholics and some Protestants give up something during the period and do forms of fasting, such as refraining from eating meat. Many groups are holding prayer services specifically on behalf of Ukrainians this year. For example, on Wednesday, Catholic University’s Ukrainian Church Studies Center will hold a day-long prayer vigil in the Basilica of the National Shrine’s Byzantine chapel in Washington.

Though fasting is not obligatory for Ukrainian Catholics as it is for Roman Catholics, the Rev. Robert Hitchens, pastor of the Ukrainian Catholic National Shrine of the Holy Family in Northeast Washington, D.C., said he has encouraged his congregation to participate in the global fast on Wednesday.

“Everyone is worked up and on pins and needles,” Hitchens said of members of his congregation. “With Lent coming, it’s a time for intensified prayer and doing good works. It’s a way for people to do something concretely.”

Other Christian leaders have also called for prayer on Ash Wednesday on behalf of Ukrainians. Five Christian world communions — including the World Communion of Reformed Churches, the Lutheran World Federation and the Mennonite World Conference — will be holding a joint Ash Wednesday prayer service for peace in Ukraine.

While leaving the White House on March 2, Ash Wednesday, President Biden responded to questions about the war in Ukraine and the season of Lent. (Video: The Washington Post)

And several people have said that they plan to fast on Wednesday even though they don’t belong to the Roman Catholic Church. Dan Gibson, who is part of the Anglican Church of North America and would not typically follow Pope Francis’s direction, said that he felt like fasting on Ash Wednesday was an ecumenical moment for Christians worldwide after he saw Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the spiritual leader of Anglicans worldwide, join Francis’s call.

“I’m a lawyer, not a soldier, not a paramedic. I’m not a person who can go over to Ukraine and do much to help anyone,” said Gibson, who lives in Durham, N.C. “As a Christian, I believe God listens to our prayers. This is at least something I can do.”

Though she left the Catholic Church of her youth, Patricia Yingst, who now describes herself as spiritual, saw Pope Francis’s call to fast and plans to join him.

“I wish I could hug a Ukrainian right now. All I can do is meditate and pray at the moment,” said Yingst, who is based in Oroville, Calif. “Fasting is something I know I can accomplish to be supportive to people trying to make a difference. It seems like a little thing, but I’m doing what I can.”

Hoping to show solidarity with the people of Ukraine, Jared Cook said that even though his denomination, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, doesn’t observe Lent or Ash Wednesday, he plans to join others who are fasting.

LDS members typically fast during one Sunday of each month and are asked to give the money they would have spent on food to the LDS Church, which then distributes it to people in need. Cook said he felt like he didn’t need to wait for LDS leadership to call for a fast for Ukrainians.

“Scrolling Twitter, watching the updates of what’s happening in Ukraine, your heart goes out to these people, seeing how they’re defending themselves,” said Cook, who is an attorney in Rochester, N.Y. “There’s a sense of helplessness that comes with that. It’s not like I can show up in person and pick up a gun and help them.”

Christians have historically fasted for all kinds of reasons, and Ash Wednesday reminds people of their own mortality and lack of control, said Rev. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, an Anglican priest in Toronto who has done activism opposing the use of nuclear weapons.

“It’s interesting to think, people are latching onto fasting as a way to give them agency,” he said. “But it’s the spiritual move Christians have always made. Here’s this war we can’t control, but we’re going to acknowledge our dependence on a higher power.”

In the biblical story of Jonah, when the prophet warns Nineveh of impending destruction because of its wickedness, the city turned to fasting and prayer, and God decided not to destroy the city. Fasting engenders weakness, Wigg-Stevenson said, and it brings home how dependent and vulnerable people are.

“When you think about fasting, especially toward an end rather than for self-improvement, it’s not about your own agency but a recognition of your dependency on God. We fast and repent because it’s our way of drawing close to the reality of death for us,” he said. “After we fast, you become desperate for food. It’s a way of appealing to the hope of life that defeats death. It feels appropriate to do that in the face of a war. We appeal to the Lord of life, to the one who can offer resurrection in the face of death.”