Lent commences today, Ash Wednesday, the start of our journey towards Easter. So what are we going to “give up” this Lent?
Giving up “things” for Lent is neither an outdated custom imposed by the Church, an unreasonable burden on honest citizens, nor is it just another Catholic eccentricity – some of the ways those outside the Church often see this practice. No one is forced to make penances or sacrifices that they don’t wish to do, but the Catholic Church encourages us to do so for the good of our souls. The Church also allows us to choose the ones we feel we should, and can, stick to. For instance, there is no point in a person who doesn’t drink giving up alcohol! But if you are sweet-toothed like me, giving up chocolates and sweets for 40 days is a real penance! Everyone must decide what they feel they are capable and willing to sacrifice during this special time of purification and preparation for the coming Easter Triduum, the most important days of the Liturgical calendar.
In our self-indulgent day and age, we find that to deny ourselves something we enjoy is tough – it goes against the grain. Many find keeping Lenten practices for a period of 40 days, even the easiest and lightest ones, pretty difficult to stick to, and will simply give up before the end saying, “this is not for me”. What a shame!
Yet this is understandable unless we fully realise the true meaning behind these sacrifices. Keeping lenten fasts and penances is in fact a practice with a deep spiritual significance.
First of all, a bit about the history of Lent, how it came about. Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert before His Passion and Death. Lent, the period of 40 days that precedes the celebration of Easter, has its origin in the early days of the Church, when converts seeking to become Christian, who at that time were mostly adults, spent several years in study and preparation. Under the threat of Roman persecution, becoming a Christian was a serious and dangerous business, so their process of preparation was intensive! Then they went through a final period of “purification and enlightenment” for the 40 days before their baptism at Easter. After this, the rest of the Church began to observe the season of Lent in solidarity with these newest Christians. It became an opportunity for all Christians to recall and renew the commitment of their Baptism.
Today we know Lent as a season of conversion: we acknowledge the ways we have turned away from God in our lives and we focus on turning our hearts and minds back toward God. Hence the three pillars of Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These observances help us turn away from whatever has distracted or derailed us and to turn back to God. Giving up something for Lent is ultimately a form of fasting. We can deprive ourselves of some small pleasure or indulgence and offer that sacrifice up to God. Or we might “give up” a bad habit as a way of positively turning our life back towards what God wants for us.
Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 are obliged to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. (But those who are younger than 18, or older than 59, can also fast if they are fit and well.) In addition, all Catholics 14 years old and older must abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and all the Fridays of Lent.
The Code of Canon Law and our bishops remind us of other works and means of doing penance: prayer, acts of self-denial, almsgiving (which can be more meaningful if these ‘alms’ come from what we have saved by our acts of self-denial), and performing works of personal charity. If we also manage to attend Mass daily, or at least several times a week, pray the daily rosary, make the way of the cross (especially on Fridays), spend a little time each day on ‘Lectio Divina’, attend evening prayer services or preparation talks that many parishes offer at this time of year – we are using this important time of the Liturgical year to grow in holiness and love as we unite ourselves to the Sacrifice of the Cross of Our Blessed Lord and Saviour. We shall then be so much better prepared, body and soul, to enter into the Easter celebrations.
Suffering is not in vain when it is “offered up”. This is another important Catholic teaching so often misunderstood by those outside the Church. This short video from “Catholic Spiritual Direction” clarifies the meaning behind these words: