"What are you giving up for Lent?" That's a question a lot of Catholics hear this time of year. It's a good conversation starter. But I think this question gives us the wrong outlook on the Lenten season. Perhaps we'd be better served by asking What are you gaining for Lent?
WHAT DOES THE CHURCH REQUIRE?
What does the Church actually require us to give up during Lent? Not much, as it turns out. We are asked to abstain from meat on Fridays, and Ash Wednesday. And we are asked to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. That's it. Of course, Catholics are free to go beyond the minimum, and people generally select one or more other things -- chocolate, caffeine, Facebook -- to give up during Lent. This is a good thing to do, but only if we keep in mind everything else Lent is about.
Lent has always been a season associated with three particular spiritual practices; prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Each of these involves much more than just "giving something up."
Our model for fasting is Jesus, who fasted for 40 days in the desert after His baptism, in preparation for His public ministry (Mt 4:1-11). But why do we fast? Eating is good and necessary to sustain life. Fasting is not simply about giving up food. It's about building up our spiritual discipline. It's about learning to deny ourselves. Fasting reminds us that we don't need to obey our base passions. When my stomach growls, I can tell it no. Fasting helps us learn to master our desires. Fasting also reminds us of our own mortality. It reminds us of how dependent we are. So you give up a little food, but you stand to gain spiritual discipline, strength of will, and the perspective needed to place God first in your life. That's quite a trade off.
Whenever fasting is mentioned in the Bible, it is always in conjunction with prayer. Prayer is what makes fasting a spiritual discipline and not a weight loss plan. So how should you pray during Lent? My answer is a little more than you are praying now. Spend some quiet time before the Blessed Sacrament, telling God what is on your heart, and then listen to what He may have to tell you in the silence. Pray a rosary each day. Or why not start your day with Morning Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours? Or end it with Night Prayer? You'll be praying in union with the whole Church, and how cool is that? One of the best things you can do is to simply read the scriptures. Pick a book in the Bible that you want to know better and read a little every day during Lent. Another way to approach it is to read the daily Mass readings, which you can find on the USCCB web site.
Whatever form of prayer you decide upon, pick a time to do it each day and stick to your schedule. If you want to improve your relationship with God, you need to talk with Him on a regular basis! What you are giving up is a little time each day. What you stand to gain is a more intimate relationship with God.
Community Table. If Tuesdays don't work for you, contact them to see about another day to volunteer -- they need help throughout the week! You can also contact the WCU Center for Service Learning for other volunteer opportunities to benefit those in need.
People can be poor in many ways. Is your roommate feeling homesick? Take her out for coffee. Is your classmate depressed? Invite her over for a movie night. Is your friend stressed about an upcoming test? Offer to stay up late with him to help him study. Almsgiving is not just about writing a check to a charity. It's about learning to hold on to things loosely -- this includes our treasure, time and talent -- so that we may be ready to give whenever we encounter someone in need.
When you practice almsgiving, you have to give up some of your hard earned cash, or valuable time; but what you gain is a generosity of spirit, and a heart that loves as Jesus loves.
The whole season of Lent is a penitential season. Penance comes from repent which means "to turn." There are two Hebrew words that are translated as repent in the Old Testament. One means "to return" and the other means "to feel sorrow." The Greek word that gets translated as repent in the New Testament means "to change one's mind." Put all those meanings together and you get an idea of what penance should involve.
Repenting involves turning away from sin -- which may indeed involve sorrow, if we are truly sorry for the wrongs we have done. But it also involves turning toward God. And that is where our focus should be. When you repent, you give up on sin, but you gain the friendship of God.
Everything we give up during Lent is for the purpose of gaining something even greater. So if you haven't decided yet what you are giving up for Lent this year, maybe you should think about what you would like to gain instead.