And so the Church year turns again to Lent.
It’s a tricky season to navigate. As Catholics, we’re called to penance as we contemplate the journey of Our Lord through betrayal by his friends all the way to his torture and death. But let’s face it: 40 days is a long time to keep doing anything, especially something that you don’t like to do.
Catholics traditionally “give up” something for Lent. We return to meatless Fridays. We deprive ourselves of something that we really like—chocolate, for example. And we feel the pinch of the loss and sometimes we even make it through to Holy Week without cheating.
And somehow in all of that we lose the point of why we are doing it, because we’re so caught up in the how of doing it. God forgive us, we sometimes even feel sorry for ourselves for missing out on the glories of chocolate!
So this year might be the perfect year to look at Lent a little differently. Maybe it’s time to disassociate it from chocolate or meat or any of the luxuries we give up and that we generally substitute for prayer and penance.
Jesus made what we are supposed to do very clear. In the Gospels he set forth what would become the three “pillars” of the early Church, so called because they hold up the faithful, keep the people of God from falling into self-absorption and sin.
Those three pillars are:
- Almsgiving (what we now call charity)
Ah, you say: isn’t giving up chocolate the same as fasting? That depends. Did you choose it because it will truly hurt to give it up, or because it’s convenient, obvious, and might even help you lose weight? What is in your heart is far more significant than what is in your mouth. Ask yourself: is this a sacrifice worthy of God?
The purpose of prayer is union with God. The purpose of fasting is penance for everything we do that separates us from God. The purpose of almsgiving is connecting us to God’s people, and thereby to God.
That is what Lent is truly meant to do: bring us closer to God.
Another way of becoming closer to God is to add something to your life rather than taking something away. Instead of giving up chocolate, for example, you might add a commitment to spending 20 minutes in prayer every morning, or a twice-weekly hour of Adoration, or an extra donation to your parish or a nonprofit organization you support. You might start volunteering at a local soup kitchen, at a home for the elderly, or at a crisis center. These are activities that answer Jesus’ call to prayer and almsgiving, other important Lenten components.
It’s helpful to step back and try and put the crucifixion in human terms for a moment. Imagine that you are at your bank, depositing your weekly paycheck. A bank robber enters—and suddenly the situation has spiraled out of your control. At some point during the robbery, you are singled out, and the robber holds a knife to your throat. Imagine now that one of the bank tellers steps up and offers himself to the robber in your place. Imagine the intensity of your feelings as you understand that this person willingly and deliberately offered to die in your place so that you could live.
When we put fasting and penance in the context of someone dying a painful death for us, enduring hours of pain and coming close to despair, then that giving up chocolate seem like an inadequate response.
The journey to Gethsemane is a journey into the most amazing and frightening truth any religion can offer: that someone willingly accepted torture and death for us. This is as real as it gets.
Lent is beginning. The end of this road is resurrection through the cross. What is it that you want to do, this Lent, to accompany Jesus who gave his life for you.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir
Jeannette de Beauvoir is part of the marketing department at Pauline Books & Media. She did graduate studies at Yale University and Boston University in liturgics and Church history.