So here we are. Lent 2013. Another 40 days of no caffeine, cookies, soda, candy, the snooze button, Facebook/Twitter, gossip, video games, complaining, showing up late, secular music, texting, TV, or homework (just kidding . . . don’t try it, it doesn’t work).
There could be a lot of different motivations behind those sacrifices – like a desire to lose weight, or to get attention . . . but that’s not exactly what Lent is about.
What is Lent really about?
Like a good book, all of Lent builds toward what happens at the end. Except that unlike a book we know what happens at the end of Lent so we’re able to prepare for it.
We look forward to Holy Week, where we enter into Jesus’ Passion and Death and then celebrate His ultimate victory over sin and death on Easter Sunday.
You could look at the end and think we should be getting ready with party decorations. What’s with the penance?
Ash Wednesday starts us off with ashes as a reminder that in the beginning we were made from dust and will in the end we will return to dust. Our time here is limited. When we realize that, it provokes us to think about why we’re here and where we’re going.
In Lent we take a step back and empty ourselves so that we can open our hearts and become more like Christ. Everything we do in Lent is to imitate Christ and grow closer to Him. When we experience the light of Christ we can see more clearly what we have done and what we have failed to do in order to have an ongoing conversion.
There are three main things that we’re encouraged to do during Lent: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving.
Why do we fast?
- Because Jesus fasted. Lent is 40 days because Jesus spent 40 days in the desert being tempted and fasting and praying before his public ministry began. This wasn’t so that others would think He was super holy (even though He is . . . ) and that’s not what it should be about for us either. Jesus was clear about that in Matthew 6:16-18. St. Gregory said, “The difficulty is that there are too many people in the world who seek to be seen as holy and not enough who truly seek to be holy.”
- Because disciplining our bodies, disciplines our souls. By denying our bodies we are keeping ourselves from being slaves to our impulses. Our bodies and souls are connected and can’t be separated. One affects the other. Original sin caused a disharmony that put our bodies and souls at war with each other so that our bodies rule many of our decisions. Your tummy rumbles – you go eat food . . . you are tired after lunch and the sun is out – so you take a nap during class.
Fasting keeps us from being slaves to every urge in the body and lets our mind and soul be the master of our actions. Jesus showed us that having self discipline allows us to follow God in total freedom!
- Because suffering finds meaning in Christ. Jesus taught us that suffering is transformed for our salvation when we enjoin it with His suffering which He endured for our sins. He even said that suffering is necessary for us to get to heaven. “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me’” (Matthew 16:24).
“Just as man needs bread, so does man have even more need of God” (Pope Benedict XVI). If your body is feeling hungry when you are fasting from food, think about what you are doing to your soul when you are not filling it with God.
Which leads us to the next point.
Why do we pray?
- Because fasting without prayer is nothing but a diet. Lent isn’t a Catholic equivalent to a “new year’s resolution.” It’s not focused on the acts themselves and accomplishing great things. Everything we do is to help us become more united with God. Fasting can help us get rid of distractions so that we can speak and listen clearly when we talk to God in prayer.
- Because Jesus prayed. All the time. He withdrew to pray and communicate with God every time before going out in ministry somewhere. Part of His reasoning for everything He did on earth was to set an example for us to follow after. St. Paul implores us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) in order to do the will of God in our lives.
- Because sometimes it’s hard to recognize sin. The closer we get to God in prayer, the more we will be able to see the things of this world that are leading us away from God. When something evil and sinful is brought into the light, you can see it for what it really is and you will even acquire a distaste for it. Prayer also fills us with hope for what is to come. “Prayer reveals to souls the vanity of earthly goods and pleasures. It fills them with light, strength, and consolation; and gives them a foretaste of the calm bliss of our heavenly home” (St. Rose of Viterbo).
- Because prayer keeps us in tune with our relationship with God. We receive grace through prayer, the gift of God’s divine life. If you want to do God’s will, make sure you aren’t only talking to him when you need something. We need grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to live lives of holiness. Stay close to the shepherd and you will know His voice when He calls your name (John 10:27).
“Prayer is a vital necessity. Proof from the contrary is no less convincing: if we do not allow the Spirit to lead us we fall back into the slavery of sin. How can the Holy Spirit be our life if our heart is far from him?” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2744).
Why do we give alms?
- Because it helps us to be less selfish. We are hardwired to think about ourselves first. The best way to counteract this is by building up generosity and empathy in our hearts. Our lives are meant to be poured out for others, through our material goods and all of our gifts and talents. Let this Lent be an opportunity for you to shift the focus from yourself to your brothers and sisters around you.
- Because those afflicted with poverty need our help. If I fast from eating fast food this Lent, it reminds me of those that so often go without food. Praying for the poor is necessary, but it doesn’t put clothes on their back or food on their plate. What if you took some of the money you would spend going out to eat and donated it?
- Because our world is spiritually poor. Giving alms doesn’t just mean giving food and clothes to the poor. They are a few of what we call the “corporal works of mercy.” We are also called to the “spiritual works of mercy”, which include calling our brothers and sisters to a life of holiness and out of a life of sin.
“Today, in general, we are very sensitive to the idea of charity and caring about the physical and material well-being of others, but almost completely silent about our spiritual responsibility towards our brothers and sisters” (Pope Benedict XVI).
Since we are both body and soul, our giving must include both. So if we are called to “feed the hungry” that means feeding their souls too. “The world today is hungry not only for bread but hungry for love; hungry to be wanted, to be loved” (Bl. Mother Teresa). It’s a lot easier to donate food than to confront a friend about something which they are doing that is leading them away from God. But that’s what love is. A few uncomfortable conversations with someone you care about could help get their soul to heaven for eternity! We’re meant to build each other up in the Christian life: “As iron sharpens iron, so man sharpens his fellow man” (Proverbs 27:17).
Remember this Lent that you can’t separate prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Try to commit to doing something small in each area and you’ll definitely be closer to God and sainthood.
So let us all enter into the desert with Christ these 40 days, knowing the profound reality that our sharing in His suffering is a great gift, which leads us more perfectly into communion with Him.