“What are you giving up for Lent?”
For years, this question defined what Lent was all about for me. Sure, at an intellectual level, I could have told you that Lent existed to spiritually prepare us for Easter. But at a real, day-to-day level, Lent was just about giving something up for forty days.
That something was usually chocolate. Every year, without fail, Lent would catch me unprepared, and I would make the same half-hearted commitment to give up chocolate (which definitely didn’t extend to the completely different food groups of chocolate ice-cream and/or chocolate-chip cookies).
Then when Easter Sunday came around I would mentally congratulate myself and celebrate by devouring a chocolate egg twice the size of my head. Another Lent successfully completed (as far as I was concerned)
It wasn’t until my final year of High School that my perspective on Lent changed dramatically. I was attending mass on Ash Wednesday, lined up behind my classmates to receive the ashes on our foreheads. As I reached the front of the line, the priest made the sign of the cross on my forehead in ashes and said ten words I’ve never forgotten:
“Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.”
I was brought up Catholic, so I been hearing these words every Ash Wednesday since before I could even remember. But for some reason, at that Mass, it was like I was hearing them for the first time:
“Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.”
Not only do these words mark the beginning of Lent, they also reveal its purpose. Lent isn’t about giving up chocolate, or ice-cream, or social media. At its heart, Lent is about turning away from sin, and being faithful to the gospel.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve tried turning away from sin and being faithful to the gospel, but let me tell you, it doesn’t happen instantly. No one achieves Mother-Teresa-level-holiness overnight. It’s a journey – but so is Lent!
Lent is 40 days long for this reason. It echoes the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert, fasting and preparing for his public ministry (Luke 4:1-12). In a similar way, Lent is meant to be a time of preparation for us, where we grow in our relationship with God.
How do we make Lent a time of preparation? Well, for me it started when I decided that instead of giving up the same thing every year, I would actually try to live my Lent with purpose. There are three areas in particular that the Church teaches we should try to grow in over these 40 days: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
It’s no accident that prayer is first on that list. We often get pre-occupied with the “fasting” part of Lent, which focuses on giving something up, but Lent is first and foremost about our relationship with God.
In the book of Hosea, God tells His people “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Above all else, God desires that we love him and know him.
Realizing this was a big turning point for me. After my “turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel” moment (TAFSABFTTG, for short), I decided that rather than giving up chocolate for Lent, I would commit to praying every day instead. We had a chapel at my high school, so every morning before classes began, I would go and spend 15 minutes in prayer.
Once, when Mother Teresa was asked how she prayed to God, she said “I look at Him and He looks at me.” That was my model for these 15 minutes of prayer each day. It wasn’t about having a deep emotional experience or saying a certain number of Hail Marys – it was just about spending time with God.
At times it was a difficult commitment to keep. But after 40 days of starting each morning with prayer, I didn’t want to stop. Even now, six years later, the commitment I made that Lent still has an impact on my life. Every morning, when I force myself out of bed, one of the first things I do is spend time in prayer.
As early as 200AD, before Lent was even called “Lent”, the early Church would give things up, or “fast”, in preparation for Easter. Fasting has always been recognised as a powerful tool for building self-disciple and helping us to resist temptation.
However, there are a couple of ways that we can get fasting wrong during Lent. The first is that we don’t take fasting seriously enough. This was me with chocolate. At the most, giving up chocolate for Lent was a minor inconvenience. It didn’t challenge me and it certainly didn’t help me grow in my faith.
The other way we get fasting wrong is by taking it too seriously. I’ve been guilty of this one as well. A couple of years after making my commitment to pray for 15 minutes every morning, I decided it was time to up the stakes. I was going to give up hot showers.
The first few days went well. Each morning, I would force myself under the freezing stream of water and emerge feeling perceptibly holier, like a hermit who had renounced worldly wealth and would only bathe under icy waterfalls.
There was just one problem: it was all about me. My commitment to cold shows very quickly became about my sacrifice, my strength of will and how holy it made me feel. I managed to completely miss the point of Lent: growing in my relationship with God.
When Jesus is fasting in the desert, he is tempted several times by the Devil. In the last of these temptations, the Devil leads Jesus up a mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world (Matthew 4:8-10). “All these I will give you”, the devil says, “if you fall down and worship me.” Yet Jesus responds “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him’.”
There’s nothing wrong with giving up chocolate or hot showers, but here’s a question that might help you fast with more purpose this Lent: Is there anything in your life that is stopping you from worshipping God and serving only Him?
Do you struggle with greed – always feeling like you have to own the latest pair of kicks or newest piece of technology? Fast from making unnecessary purchases.
Do you gossip – saying negative things about people behind their backs? Fast from making such comments. Affirm people instead.
Use fasting to break free from anything that is holding you back in your relationship with God.
Last of the three is giving to others, or “almsgiving.” If you’re anything like me, it also might be the last of the three on your priority list. I pray every day, I try to fast in different ways each Lent, but the truth is, I’m not great at almsgiving. I’m not great at giving up my money or my time – especially when it means giving until it hurts.
Yet Jesus makes it clear that almsgiving is a core part of what makes us His followers. When He speaks to his disciplines about feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked and visiting the lonely, he leaves them with the words “just as you did it to one of the least of these… you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
Too often, I think the typically Catholic approach to giving is that when we see the collection plate slowly making its way to us at Sunday mass, we reach into our pockets and whatever loose change we pull out, we give.
If you want to approach almsgiving with purpose this year, be thoughtful about what you give. It might be donating to a charity you know is going great work, volunteering at a local outreach centre, or visiting the elderly at a rest home. Whatever it is, make a commitment and stick to it.
One final thing about prayer, fasting and almsgiving – they aren’t exclusive to Lent! The purpose of the commitments you make over these 40 days isn’t to drop them the moment Lent is over. They’re meant to be a solid foundation for living out your faith every day!
Lent is an incredible opportunity to start (or re-start) practices that take you deeper in your relationships with God and with the people around you. Don’t miss that opportunity. Live your Lent with purpose.
Order the Kindle version of the 2021 Lent Companion and VIA: Finding Hope in the Stations of the Cross as a guide to your Lenten journey this year. Meet Jesus in the desert and confront the battle of temptation with the power of authentic sacrifice.