By Catholic News Service
IN A NUTSHELL
As followers of Christ, we have a call to make the world a holier place in the image of our Savior, who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Fasting is a method that people can use to limit or deny their physical desires for a higher, often spiritual, goal.
Embrace sacrifice -- but do not forget service and surrender
By Mike Nelson | Catholic News Service
Lent and Easter had come and gone, but the Christian call to sacrifice was very much on Pope Francis' mind when he addressed 12,000 pilgrims in St. Peter's Square last June 28 during his weekly general audience.
Christians, he told those assembled, are called to detach themselves from power, reject violence and sacrifice themselves for God and others out of love.
"Indeed," he declared, "a Christian who is not humble and poor, detached from wealth and power and, above all, detached from him- or herself, does not resemble Jesus."
In other words, sacrifice is connected to rejecting the ways (the lure) of the world, a world that more often values self-gratification (frequently, instant self-gratification) above and even to the exclusion of self-denial.
Sacrifice -- from the Latin "sacrificare" ("sacer," sacred or holy; "facere," to make) -- implies that we who proclaim ourselves as followers of Christ have, by definition, a call to make the world a holier place in the image of our Savior, who made the ultimate sacrifice.
That does not mean we too are called to martyrdom, to offer our lives as Christ did, though throughout the past two millennia many -- starting with Jesus' own apostles -- have done exactly that.
"The only perfect sacrifice," states the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "is the one that Christ offered on the cross as a total offering to the Father's love and for our salvation. By uniting ourselves with his sacrifice, we can make our lives a sacrifice to God" (No. 2,100).
Sacrifice, then, is about setting aside our needs out of love for each other, as Christ offered his life for us.
"It is right to offer sacrifice to God as a sign of adoration and gratitude, supplication and communion," says the catechism, adding, "Every action done so as to cling to God in communion of holiness, and thus achieve blessedness, is a true sacrifice" (No. 2,099).
The latter teaching is from St. Augustine's "De Civitate Dei contra Paganos" ("The City of God Against the Pagans"), a fifth-century work presenting human history as an ongoing conflict between the "Earthly City" (or City of Man) and God's people (or City of God). Augustine argues that the latter -- marked by people who forego earthly pleasure to dedicate themselves to the eternal truths of God -- ultimately will emerge triumphant.
"The Lord is the goal of human history," states the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, "Gaudium et Spes, "the focal point of the longings of history and of civilization, the center of the human race, the joy of every heart and the answer to all its yearnings."
Lent is a time in which Christians seeking that answer to their yearnings are reminded to embrace sacrifice, not simply for the 40 days of the season, but as part of daily living:
-- To ask themselves, What -- as in, how much of the world's riches -- do I need to be happy?
-- To look beyond their needs to those of others, especially those less fortunate.
-- To bring themselves closer to God's word through prayer, fasting and almsgiving -- to practice what they profess to believe.
In a Catholic Christian context, sacrifice is closely connected to (if not precisely interchangeable with) two other "S" words, surrender and service. Each relies on the others to be fully present and effective.
If we do not surrender in acknowledgement of the power of God, how can we make sacrifices in God's name? If we do not sacrifice ourselves, forsaking our needs and our desires in favor of others, how can we truly serve others as Christ served? And if we do not serve one another, how can we proclaim that we have surrendered to God's will?
The catechism drives home the point, saying, "Outward sacrifice, to be genuine, must be the expression of spiritual sacrifice: 'The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit' (Ps 51:17)" (No. 2,100). Surrender, in other words, is the first step.
With regard to service, the catechism points out that Old Testament prophets "often denounced sacrifices that were not from the heart or not coupled with love of neighbor." Jesus himself quoted Hosea: "It is loyalty that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings" (6:6).
What does this all mean, on a daily, practical basis? It begins with surrender -- or reconciliation with Christ -- asserts Pope Francis. And that requires sacrifice.
"Ambassadors of reconciliation are called, in (Jesus') name, to lay down their lives, to live no more for themselves but for Christ who died and was raised for them," the pope said Jan. 25, 2017 (six months before his audience talk mentioned earlier), during an ecumenical prayer service in Rome that concluded the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
That sacrifice, he said, is twofold: first, to set aside "fashions of the moment," plans and advantages, and instead look constantly to the Lord's cross; and second, to forgive.
"To be fixated on the past, lingering over the memory of wrongs done and endured, and judging in merely human terms, can paralyze us and prevent us from living in the present," said Pope Francis.
So let go of the past. Be present to the needs of today's world. Sacrifice.
Catholic journalist Mike Nelson writes from Southern California.
This Lent: A different kind of sacrifice
By Maureen Pratt | Catholic News Service
If doing the same thing this Lent as in Lents past seems a bit hollow to you, two Catholics' experiences with doing something different might help bring a fresh perspective to your own Lenten practice.
A few years ago, dissatisfied with the "same old" way of moving through Lent, Gary Jansen decided to blend what he does for a living with a new Lenten practice. An editor and author ("Station to Station and Life Everlasting: Catholic Devotions and Mysteries for the Everyday Seekers"), Jansen started a daily gratitude journal.
"A gratitude journal is a meditative exercise that helps you slow down and pay attention to things you might pass by in your daily life," says Jansen. "I listed everything I was thankful for: the sky and the air we breathe, the shoes and clothes I wear, the water and food I drink. At the end of the entry, I would just write, 'Thank you, God.'"
Reframing our approach to life through gratitude can help us better appreciate family, too, including others in our faith communities. Lenten activities that draw us together, whether at home or at our parishes, can bring profound blessings beyond the finite days of the Lenten season.
"The most meaningful Lenten journey I can recall as a child," says Jeanne Loftis, a busy mother, wife, and attorney in Portland, Oregon, "involved my dad sitting all of us kids down and reading to us from the family children's Bible. I can still picture where we were all sitting in our family room, and the warmth and love in the room as we gathered around my dad."
Her childhood experience inspired another family Lenten practice seven years ago when she and her husband Blair signed up for a parish weekly Lenten prayer group and included their son Joey, who has Down syndrome.
"Prior to joining the prayer group," says Loftis, "we didn't know any of these people, despite having been parishioners for over 20 years. The discussion allowed us to get to know our fellow parishioners better, and the inclusion of our son in the weekly gatherings helped all of us understand better the wonders of God's love in Joey's unique and open way of embracing others."
Unlike chocolate, dessert or another thing given up during Lent but taken up again once the season of sacrifice is past, both Jansen's and Loftis' experiences had deeply lasting effects.
"We have sought out other prayer groups," says Loftis, "including one that we are now going to participate in at the same house as the one seven years ago."
Jansen says, "It's easy to forget God is present in everything we do. (The gratitude journal) makes me mindful of the blessings so many of us have."
For those who are daunted by keeping a daily journal, Jansen offers an alternative suggestion:
"Set an alarm on your smartphone to go off at 3:00 p.m. every day. No matter where you are, at work or in a meeting, take a few seconds to say the name of Jesus three times and touch your heart. Be consistent. Calling on Jesus to enter your heart is transformative."
Involving others in our Lenten goals is helpful, too.
"From time to time," says Loftis, "it is important to realize we all need help to stick to our goals. Involve others in learning your goals and helping you reach them. We do so much better when we are able to create a community of success."
"Cultivating a Lenten spirituality," says Jansen, "is really about cultivating an awareness of God's unrelenting presence in our lives."
And as we journey through Lent, mindful of that presence, we build strength within and draw closer to God and others for months and years to come.
Pratt is a columnist for Catholic News Service. Her website is www.maureenpratt.com
A primer on fasting in the church
By Joseph F. Kelly | Catholic News Service
Fasting is a method that people can use to limit or deny their physical desires for a higher, often spiritual, goal.
Fasting was widely practiced among the ancient Jews, usually before important feast days. It was also practiced by disciples of John the Baptist.
As a Jew, Jesus would have fasted, his disciples likewise fasted, and the earliest Christians followed in that path. The New Testament speaks of fasting, but the Bible and other early sources simply do not include many statistics. Initially fasting was not universal.
Yet Jesus' example would win out, and the early Christians decided that they also would fast. By the second century, Wednesday and Saturday were treated as fast days in individual churches.
As fasting became increasingly accepted, the early Christians decided to follow the Old Testament practice of fasting before major feast days. For the believers, the most important feast day was Easter, commemorating the Resurrection because, as the apostle Paul had said, "If Christ has not been raised, (our) faith is vain" (1 Cor 15:17). The supreme feast deserved a preparatory fast.
The initial pre-Easter fast was only a few days, and Christian leaders soon concluded that such a brief time did not adequately presage so crucial a feast. They looked to the Gospels and decided to imitate the Lord by having a fast of 40 days.
This widespread practice was approved by the bishops of the first ecumenical council, Nicaea, in 325, thus making Lent a universal practice.
The initial observance of the fast was very demanding. Christians could eat only one full meal per day. Many churches forbade the consumption of meat, fish, eggs and delicacies at the risk of violating the spiritual value of the fast.
The churches soon developed liturgical practices to go along with Lent, believing self-denial to be spiritually important but insufficient. The bishops introduced the practice of almsgiving. If one wished to do more than just deny bodily satisfaction, giving to the poor was a positive, practical way to do so since it effectively involved self-denial.
Another -- but quite modern -- form of self-denial was depriving one's self of some personal enjoyment, such as not going to a movie or a sporting event and donating the funds to a charity. Simply making larger than usual donations to charity would also be a form of self-denial.
Some modern Catholics question the value of self-denial during Lent, since retailers make Easter a secular holiday that leads young believers, caught up in the secularity before Easter, to have difficulty with the religious aspects of Lent.
But modern secular values cannot triumph over a feast that is two millennia old. Every so often, we must say "No" to such a travesty. When religious people fast, they know why they do so, and they are reminded of the good reason for the practice.
To all readers, a blessed Lent and a truly Happy Easter.
Joseph F. Kelly is retired professor at John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Fasting as a form of sacrifice has existed since the earliest days of the church. The Fathers of the Church often spoke of fasting -- why to fast, how to fast, what disposition and attitude to have while fasting -- and encouraged their flock to persevere in the practice.
Here are some quotes from the fathers to inspire and fortify you in your Lenten sacrifice of fasting:
"If you have fasted for two days, do not for this reason think yourself better than those who have not. You fast and perhaps become angry; another eats, but perhaps exercises kindness. ... When you reflect on yourself, do not base your glory on the failings of others, but on the true value of your actions." (Jerome, "Letters to Eustachius")
"God does not want pointless fasting: Offering such fasting to God does nothing for your holiness. You must offer a different kind of fasting to God, which is this: Do nothing wicked in your life, but serve the Lord with a pure heart; obey his commandments and progress in his precepts; allow no evil desire to entire your soul, but trust in God." (Hermas, "The Shepherd")
"Fasting is dangerous for those who use it to seek human praise and who acquire a saintly reputation by showing their vain pallor. ... Therefore, take note of how the Lord does not consider fasting a primary good: It is not pleasing to God in itself, but in merit of the other good works it brings with it." (John Cassian, "Conferences")
(Excerpts taken from "Lent and Easter with the Church Fathers," U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops/Libreria Editrice Vaticana)[[In-content Ad]]