CNS photo/Bob Roller
CNS photo/Bob Roller
" Sacrifice and penance for their own sakes do not offer much meaning. Sacrifice and penance for a 'spiritual purpose' mean a great deal. Lent provides that spiritual purpose. "

In nostalgic moments, Catholics of my generation and older reflect on their experience of the Catholic Church while growing up. It would be no exaggeration to say that the scene looks very different now from that of the 40s, 50s and early 60s. When Catholics of my “vintage age” get together, it is not uncommon that these memories surface – good and/or bad – in conversation.

Stories about “the nuns” or “Father X and Y” keep the conversation going along with those of altar servers “sneaking some altar wine” in the sacristy; getting corrected “by Sister” for not knowing the Catechism; ransoming countless “pagan babies” by filling a collection card with dimes; getting nabbed to do chores around the church, convent or school; serving a well-attended Mass in the wee hours of the morning; struggling to remember things to say in Confession; parish picnics or bingo, and so on. These memories are amusing to most of us “cradle Catholics” – and let’s admit it, we grew up “no worse for the wear.” 

Of course, there are also some bad experiences we hear about and some unhappy memories of things that happened to some Catholic youngsters that changed their lives for the worse – perhaps for decades – and, when revealed, released hurt and real harm which everyone in the Church profoundly regrets. Life is a mixed bag, and the Church is part of the mix, good and bad. And the human memory holds on to both.

The good stuff, however, keeps us coming back, thank God, and, although the Catholic Church has dramatically changed since our younger days, our experience of and in the Church has formed and shaped the kind of Catholics we are today. One of those experiences is the Season of Lent. It is not an experience simply locked in the memory. Lent is something we, as Catholics, share every year – part of an ancient Catholic tradition. And that tradition, that time, that season is upon us once more.

As adult Catholics, we understand that Lent is more, much more, than just giving up candy for 40 days as we did in our childhood. Lent is a period that the Catholic Church sets aside each year for us to prepare ourselves for the celebration of Holy Week and Easter, the annual commemoration of the Lord Jesus’ death and Resurrection. He died to save us from our sins, so the preparatory penance and sacrifices of Lent in which we engage make sense. He rose to give us new life, so the purification and prayer of Lent help make us worthier recipients of that gift.

In the Catholic Church’s earliest history, Christians “fasted” before the solemn feast of Easter. As a practice, however, fasting was part of religious observance long before the Lord Jesus Christ was born.  The experience of fasting can be found throughout the Old Testament. For the ancient Jews, fasting involved a total abstinence from food and drink before special Jewish religious holidays and occasions. It was a sign of repentance and total dependence upon God, emphasizing the spiritual over the material, a certain longing for God who provides for us in our need.

In the New Testament, the practice of fasting continued in the experience of the Lord Jesus himself.  Shortly after his Baptism by John in the Jordan River, Jesus took to the desert or wilderness where, for 40 days and 40 nights, Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us he “fasted and prayed.” It was there that he confronted and rejected Satan and his temptations before beginning his public ministry.

The observance of fasting was part of the spiritual discipline of the early Church in preparation for Easter Baptisms, gradually increasing in duration from a few days to the “40 days” or “season” before Easter established by the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. The purpose of fasting noted in the writings of the early Church Fathers seemed clearly penitential. It should be noted, however, that Church historians and scholars disagree about the historical details of the Christian obligation to fast and the emergence of Lent as a season before or even related to Easter. It has, nevertheless, survived the passage of time to the present day, offering Catholics the opportunity to pray, do penance, make sacrifices and give charity for an entire season lasting 40 days prior to the celebration of Holy Week and Easter.

The practice of fasting has been modified in duration and severity. There are two types of fasting observed in the contemporary Catholic Church: “fasting,” which refers to taking only one full meal during a day of fast with the other two meals not equal to that one full meal; and “abstinence” or refraining from eating meat or meat products on particular occasions.

During Lent, the Catholic Church requires fasting and abstinence on only two days: Ash Wednesday – the beginning of the season of Lent – and Good Friday, the commemoration of the Lord Jesus’ death and burial.  Abstinence from meat is required on all the Fridays of Lent. Unless suffering from a medical condition or during a pregnancy or while nursing, or otherwise dispensed, baptized Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 are obliged to FAST (only one full meal) as above. From the age of 14, baptized are also obliged to ABSTAIN (no meat) as above. Any questions about these requirements should be referred to one’s parish priest.

Lent, however, is not simply about fasting and abstinence. As a season of 40 days and nights, this time of penance is an opportunity for Catholics to examine their lives, repent of their sins, pray more intently, create space in their lives by giving something up as a sacrifice and also by giving something “to” others as charity (almsgiving). The Catholic Church encourages these things of its baptized members, in addition to fasting and abstinence, to establish a uniqueness to this time of year that precedes the remembrance of the Lord Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice – his saving death on the Cross – and to make it special. Sacrifice and penance for their own sakes do not offer much meaning. Sacrifice and penance for a “spiritual purpose” mean a great deal. Lent provides that spiritual purpose. It should “sting” a little. Good things have a cost. Easter provides the goal. It should make us rejoice in the promise of eternal life given to the believer.

And, so, during Lent, we travel from “ashes to Easter.” On Ash Wednesday we begin Lent with the ashes of burnt palm from the previous Holy Week’s Palm Sunday placed upon our foreheads in the sign of a cross. “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return,” says the priest or other minister. “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” And the 40 days of penance begins.

What should you do? Pray more intensely. Talk to God as you would to a friend. Deliberately set a time throughout the season when you will pray and not let anything else interfere. Say the Rosary. Do not miss a single Sunday Mass and take the family. Challenge yourself! Stop into church sometime during the week to be in the presence of the Lord Jesus.

Go to Confession: rid yourself of all your sins, the baggage you drag through life, and make every effort to convert your heart and change your ways. Who cares how long it’s been? You’re confessing for you, not for the priest or anyone else. You need God’s mercy, and this is the way Catholics ask for it and God shows it!

Give something up. That’s still a part of Lent’s practices. Give something up and fill the emptiness there with the Lord Jesus. Let him satisfy the hunger you create by what you give up. How much time do you spend on your computers or other devices? Cut it back … for Christ. Use the time to talk to people in person. Cut back on the booze or foods you indulge in so much, too much. Become thirsty and hungry for the Lord Jesus. Do a better job, a more conscientious job at work or spend more time at home with family. Get the family to eat together once a week and say “grace” before the meal. Give up some personal time to volunteer for a worthy cause or effort.  Use your imagination and come up with something real, something to sacrifice.

Don’t just give up but give something. How much is that exotic coffee you “must” have every day or that donut? Drop the cash in a container that you can give to charity. There are so many needs out there. Give to the poor. Give the gift of time to your elderly parents or neighbors or your kids for that matter. Say something positive or nice to someone who needs to hear it. Random acts of kindness! Use your imagination and give something, do something to/for others and forget about yourself for a while.

These are just some ideas to help Lent mean something this year. Don’t let Lent pass you by. Give one or more of them a shot, especially prayer. You won’t regret it come Easter.

Yes, we as Catholics have a great many things to think about and remember from the “good old days.” Some make us laugh, some make us cry. Some make us wonder what we are doing with our lives. Some make us ask, “Does anything we have done or do as Catholics make a difference?” You and I both know the answer. So, now, let God know what’s going on in your life by telling him in prayer. 

Happy and blessed Lent to all!