What is Lent?
Lent is 40 days of preparing our hearts for Jesus’ passion, death, and the celebration of His resurrection. No matter what the season, we are all called to live lives of holiness-- to strive for sainthood! Lent is a special chance to challenge ourselves to answer that call in a real way in our everyday lives; a chance to remove from our lives all the obstacles that prevent us from being who Christ created us to be. This means getting rid of the gunk in our hearts through repentance and the sacrament of Reconciliation. It also means making sacrifices to give ourselves the opportunity for growth. That kind of growth can be difficult and painful, but also draws us even closer into relationship with Jesus who suffered on the cross to save us.
So-- how do we do that? The first thing people usually think about when they think about Lent is “What are you giving up for Lent?” Let’s expand this view a little.
We have three major tools at our disposal to prepare our hearts during Lent:
What does it mean to fast?
Beginning with the basics, traditional ways of sacrificing during Lent are 1) deliberately (but safely) eating less on certain days, and 2) abstaining from eating meat on certain days. Fasting and abstaining from meat is required of all Catholics (depending on your age.) The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) explains it well:
Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of fasting and abstinence for Catholics. In addition, Fridays during Lent are obligatory days of abstinence.
When we “give something up” for Lent that is a form of fasting. You can fast from sweets or soda or snacking, but you can also “fast” from something completely unrelated to food, like gossip or Instagram.
What’s the point?
Fasting is about watching and waiting. Think about how we are supposed to fast before we go to mass to receive the Eucharist. When we fast we are increasing our anticipation for what is to come. We are creating in our bodies a physical yearning that mirrors our spiritual yearning… and the resulting experience draws us deeper into an understanding of the importance of what is on the horizon: Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Fasting is also about self-discipline and self-control. Think about Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. God told them to abstain from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The lack of self-control Adam and Eve had when they chose to just go ahead and indulge themselves is like our own experience with sin. The less control and discipline we have, the more likely we are to fall right back into sinful actions, and those sinful actions, like they did for Adam and Eve, harm our relationship with God and separate us from Him. In this way, fasting, abstaining from meat, or choosing to give something up for Lent is both a representation of our choice to be disciplined by putting Christ first as well as an effective way to help us actually grow in self-control.
What can I do?
First things first, if you are over 14 you should abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. If you are over 18, you should also be fasting on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday.
Here are some other creative ways to fast during Lent:
Fast from Screen Time. There are great things about the internet and staying connected, but our phones/tvs/tablets/etc can also monopolize our time and become an addictive distraction.
Fast from a bad habit like gossiping, complaining, or swearing. The more we actively try to avoid these things, the stronger we will get at resisting the urge to do them, and then eventually, the less of a temptation we will have in the first place. Some ideas to help make this stick:
Fast from comfort. We live in a comfort-driven world. Why do you think leggings became known as socially acceptable options for pants? Our desire for comfort can make us soft and unwilling to do what’s difficult. And hey, sainthood is difficult! How do we expect to stand strong when the going gets tough if we can’t even get out of bed without hitting snooze a few times. The following ideas are not for weak, or I guess, maybe that’s exactly who they are for [*raises hand*] :
What’s it all about?
Catholics can fall into thinking of prayer as just reciting words we’ve been taught as a way to ask God to give us what we want or to show God we’re still good Catholics. Prayer is about relationship. When we think about the natural ways we grow in relationship with other humans we are reminded of how we grow in relationship with our God…
When we want to get closer to someone, we usually do that through spending time together and sharing in conversation (both the telling and the listening parts of it.) That’s how we do it because that’s what comes naturally to us. That’s what comes naturally to us because that’s how we were created. And since we were created in the image and likeness of our God, it should come as no surprise that this is how God invites us to get closer to him as well.
So prayer is how we do just that: how we spend time with him, how we share in conversation with Him (both the telling and the listening parts of it.) And in Lent, we can renew our efforts to let God in and to get to know the one who shows us in Jesus’ passion that He is willing to give anything for closeness with us. Yes, that can be reciting the Our Father or the Hail Mary. It’s also going to mass and experiencing the sacraments. It can be a open form, private conversation you have with God. It can be a calming time of silence to let the Lord speak to your heart. It can be time spent listening to him speak to you through scripture passages or reflections. It can be anywhere from a tiny “Hi” in the middle of your day to a chunk of time spent in Adoration. It’s just intentional time spent with your Creator.
And while the focus is on the giving of yourself, there’s something you are getting too. When we deepen our relationship with God through prayer we receive graces through the Holy Spirit that strengthen us and equip us for the Christian Life. What does that look like? A greater understanding of God and the way He is working our lives brings us peace and trust in Him. A greater sense of wonder and respect for His love illuminates our worth and our dignity. We grow in virtue the more we spend time with God because we become more like Him! Which means more of the help we need to be kind, humble, patient, chaste, and all that good stuff.
What can I do?
For Lent, take your prayer life to the next level. Don’t accept your own excuses anymore, He’s desperate for you now. Try to think of one intentional way you can add spending time with Christ to your day.
Check out these ideas:
Read Scripture! Scripture is God’s love letter to us and a window into who He is and who He created us to be. Just reach for your bible a little more this Lent, or pick a specific way you want to challenge yourself to dive into the Word of God.
Single out a particular prayer-- get familiar in it, and get practice praying it. Here’s some examples:
Start a Prayer Journal. You don’t have to be a good writer or have a ton of time on your hands. You don’t even need a fancy journal, any old notebook will do. Use it as your private place to put down in words what you are wondering, what you are struggling with, what you are rejoicing in, what you are dreaming of -- those are the things your God wants you to share with Him. Not sure where to start?
What does that mean?
Usually when people talk about giving alms or “almsgiving”, they are referring to giving money or donating goods to those in need. But let’s add to that-- remember these three words: Time, Talents, and Treasure. We can give of our “treasures” (our money or our stuff) which can be a big sacrifice. We can also sacrifice by offering our time or certain gifts and talents we have to help others.
Obviously giving to the less fortunate is a good thing, but let’s take a moment to think about why we are called to this sacrifice.
Almsgiving is about justice. We know that every person is created with dignity and is worthy of respect and love. When we look at our own lives-- our security, comfort, health, community--it is hard to imagine what it would be like to go without each of those things. We are one human family and if a family member is without, it is a practice in selflessness 1) to know what it is we can offer to help and 2) to be willing to offer it.
Almsgiving is also about witness. Christ calls each of us to love as he loved, to be a witness to the whole entire world...but let's just start with your corner of the world, the people he has placed in front of you. When we do offer of ourselves, whether it’s financially or with our time and talents, we witness to Christ’s love through our actions. The people we serve, and others alongside us when we do, in some big or small way can get a glimpse of Christ’s love in action (which can have a bigger impact than we will ever know.)
What can I do?
First, think about those three T’s. Think about your time. Your Talents. Your “Treasures.” Let's picture a kid who is asked to donate some of his toys to kids in need, so he goes and gets the broken stuff. The ones he never plays with or has in multiples. That’s often what our first attempt looks like, but dig deeper.
Second, think about where there is need around you. Oftentimes we try to look large scale when really there is also an immediate need for us to give of ourselves for the good of our own family and friends.
Here’s three examples for each of the T’s, but you can come up with many more ideas when you know your own T’s!
Give your time.
Give your talents.
Give your treasures.
Lent is about preparing our hearts. Let this Lent be the year you take a big, intentional step towards Christ. Let this Lent be the year you grow in virtue. Let this Lent be the year you grow in holiness. Let this Lent be the year you become more like who Christ created you to be, and on Easter may you meet him in the Eucharist one step closer to sainthood!
As always, you are in my prayers. Have a blessed Lent!
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