Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Lent, of course, is the penitential season that prepares us for Easter. Traditionally, Lent is a time of fasting, prayer and almsgiving. It’s also a tradition for Catholics to “give up something” for Lent. Common things that Catholics give up include chocolate, caffeine, sweets, or sodas. Modern Catholics sometimes opt for giving up things like Facebook or other social media, TV, or limit the time they spend on the computer. More robust Catholics may choose to give up things like meat, shaving, perfume or make-up, or cut back significantly on their social engagements. Some choose, instead of (or in addition to) giving something up, to take on added sacrifices and devotions, such as daily Mass, a daily rosary, or reading the Bible or a spiritual classic. Many families are fond of putting out a tithe bowl or can to collect spare change over the course of the season, then gift the total to a favorite charity or to the parish on top of their regular offerings.
All of these are fine, of course. There’s no requirement to “give up” anything, really. The purpose of Lent is to keep in mind the sacrifice Jesus made for us for the sake of our salvation. The small sacrifices we make are united to the great sacrifice of Jesus, and in this way we prepare ourselves for participating and rejoicing in the glory of His Resurrection at Easter.
The Church recommends focusing on fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are the only two days of obligatory fasting, but each Friday of Lent is also a day of abstinence, where eating meat is proscribed. That is the bare minimum, and even the rules for fasting are hardly strenuous: only one full meal on that day and two lighter meals that do not equal the one full meal! That’s fasting? Well, perhaps it’s the spirit that counts. In any case, such is the bare minimum. Catholics are certainly encouraged to do more, but not to do so much that it becomes a distraction or a genuine impediment to one’s daily responsibilities. It would be ridiculous for one to fast to the point of exhaustion so that one couldn’t work when one is obligated to do so. I confess to be terrible at fasting. Still, taking on a bit more than the bare minimum seems reasonable for most healthy people. We can do more and eat less!
There are many opportunities to advance in prayer during Lent. The Stations of the Cross, prayed every Friday in nearly every Catholic parish, is a marvelous Lenten devotion. We literally follow Jesus on His Way of the Cross, from His condemnation to death at the order of Pilate to His burial in a borrowed tomb. Some parishes have added a “fifteenth station,” the Resurrection. Personally, I’m not a big fan of the fifteenth station. I much prefer focusing on the Cross during Lent and celebrating the Resurrection at Easter. For those who can’t make it to church on Fridays, there are many booklets for praying the Stations at home, or anywhere. There are also many devotional booklets and prayer books available specifically for helping one travel through each day of Lent. Many parishes make these available for parishioners, or they can be purchased at a local Catholic book store. Of course, the rosary is always a mighty prayer, and you can’t go wrong investing your Lenten journey in becoming closer to our Blessed Mother. A lovely devotion I only read about yesterday is the idea of writing in for each day of Lent the name of a loved one, friend, or even someone you don’t get along with or with whom you struggle to be friendly or on good terms, and to pray for them on that day of the Lenten season.
There’s no shortage of opportunities for almsgiving during Lent, as well. Besides the “rice bowl” campaign in which many parishes participate, a family can simply make a point of increasing their weekly donation to the parish for the Sundays of Lent. Many parishes have adopted the practice of accepting donations of food, clothing, school supplies, etc… on the various Sundays of Lent, a different “theme” for each Sunday, if you will, encouraging parishioners to bring them up during the Offertory, to be gathered around the altar, and then distributed to local charities. Families could also look over various charities, local, national and international, and make a point of sending a Lenten offering.
Whatever you do this Lent, do something. A good rule of thumb when making a sacrifice of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving is this: give what you really think you can, then give a little more.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.