This is a common topic of conversation this time of year. The answers I hear vary from the typical (chocolate, sweets, coke) to the selfish (I’m going on a diet. I’m going to start exercising.) First and foremost, Lenten sacrifices and New Year’s Resolutions are NOT synonymous. Lent isn’t a time to make a “sacrifice” that is all about you or for your benefit. Lent is the time leading up to the commemoration of our Lord’s death for our sins and the commemoration of His resurrection for our salvation. We use this time to mourn the sins for which He died. Humans have an innate psychological need to mourn tragedies, and our sins are tragedies of the greatest sort.
So what are we called to do each year during the Lenten Season? The answer can be broken down into three categories: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
This one doesn’t seem to need much explanation. We’re simply called to spend more time with the Lord in prayer. If you need a few tips on how to do this, consider the following:
- Begin each day with the following prayer: “Lord, I offer you this day, and all that I think, do and say.”
- Attend daily Mass as often as possible
- Pray the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary
- Make the Stations of the Cross at home or at your parish celebration
- Spend 10 minutes reading Scripture each day (or 10 additional minutes if you’re already in the habit of reading Scripture daily)
- Pray the seven Penitential Psalms (Psalms 6, 31, 50, 101, 129,142)
- Spend time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament
- Keep a Lenten Journal with your spiritual insights, special intentions, hurts you want to offer up, and progress reports on your Lenten resolutions
- Pray for people who you don’t like or who don’t like you
- Institute family prayer time, even if it’s just a few minutes or just one prayer
I think when most of us think of fasting, our minds immediately go to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Yes, those are the days we are specifically called to fast from food. Fasting in the strictest sense can mean going without food all together or having only bread and water. All the Church expects of us is to restrict our intake to three meals, 1 meal and two smaller. The smaller meals added together should not equal the larger meal with no snacking between meals. The Church further notes that this is only expected of people in good health between the ages of 18 and 59.
We are also called to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays in Lent. Abstinence requires a Catholic over 14 years of age to abstain from eating meat on Fridays in honor of the Passion of Jesus on Good Friday. Meat is considered to be the flesh and organs of mammals and fowl, including soups or gravies made from them. Fish, amphibians, reptiles and shellfish are permitted, as are animal derived products such as margarine and gelatin which do not have any meat taste.
In addition to fasting from food and abstaining from meat, the Church asks each of us to impose a personal penance on ourselves. This is to be modeled on fasting and abstinence but left up to the individual. This is what we’re talking about when we refer to “giving something up for Lent.” Here are some examples of what one may choose to do to fulfill this requirement.
- Increase the number of days you abstains from meat or give up meat entirely for religious motives (as opposed to those who give it up for health or other motives)
- Increase the number of days that you fast. This fast could be the same as the Church’s law (one main meal and two smaller ones) or stricter.
- Give up something you enjoy – candy, soft drinks, smoking, that cocktail before supper, tv, secular radio, etc.
Almsgiving is a very important part of Lent. For most, this means donating money to Catholic Charities or contributing to a food drive. This is a good start, but almsgiving is really more than that. It’s about answering Christ’s call to reach out to those in need, not just with money, but also with our time and talents. This gives us an opportunity to cultivate a culture of generosity in our homes and in our communities. It allows us to share not just what we have but who we are with others. It helps us understand that we are all, regardless of our economic status, members of the Body of Christ. Almsgiving invites us to remember the words in Acts 20:35, “It is more blessed to give than receive.” Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Clean out all the closets in your house and donate the items you’re not using to the St. Vincent de Paul Society
- Participate in Operation Rice Bowl. Make sure to use the included calendar to really get the “big picture.”
- Google “Catholic Missions.” Pick one and pray about how you can contribute. Send money, clothes or supplies.
- Serve at a soup kitchen or food pantry
- Take the kids grocery shopping for the poor. Take the items to a food bank or your parish pantry.
- Examine your conscience and go to Confession
- Listen to religious speakers or music on the radio or on CD
- Read a good book: the life of a Saint, a spiritual “how-to” book or other inspirational book, one of the Popes’ books or encyclicals
- Go out of your way to do something nice for someone each day
- Attend a Lenten lecture or spiritual program
- Volunteer at your parish fish fry or food drive
- Turn off the TV and spend quality time with family or friends
- See a Passion Play
So there you have it. It’s not just about giving something up, and it’s especially not about making some sort of resolution to improve your health or lifestyle. It’s about sacrifice. It’s about coming together as the Body of Christ for the greater good of others. It’s about depriving ourselves to allow our focus to rest more clearly on God and neighbor. It’s about carving out some extra time in our busy schedules to get to know our Lord and spend time with Him. Pray about how God is calling you to give yourself to others and to Him and have a blessed Lenten Season!
May Lent be for every Christian a renewed experience of God’s love given to us in Christ, a love that each day we, in turn, must “re-give” to our neighbour, especially to the one who suffers most and is in need. Only in this way will we be able to participate fully in the joy of Easter. ~Pope Benedict XVI