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Lent: It’s not about what you give up, but about who you become
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we read this: “By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.” (CCC 540) And in the desert Jesus was tempted, to some degree in very ordinary ways. Use your talents only for yourself, by turning stones into bread. Worship someone other than God. Put God to the test.
As Catholics, realizing that we are tempted by many of the same things. Selfishness. Believing we know better than God. Asking what others can do for us. And choosing to worship anything other than God sometimes. Since the first sin of Adam, the human will has become skewed.
No longer are we “walking with God in the breezy time of the day,” like Adam, but we walk in whatever way we choose, forgetting that Jesus is really the Way. Lent is that season which seeks to remind us of our own baptism and what it is we should be if we see our baptism as the priory where we need to be authentic.
Lent highlights three aspects of the Christian life: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. But just as the temptation in the desert was for Jesus the preparation for the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, so too our Lenten practices are designed first to point us towards something.
“But these works of prayer, fasting and almsgiving have a specific purpose according to the Church. “Jesus’ call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, “sackcloth and ashes”, fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion.” (CCC 1430)
Of course, in the culture of being Catholic, the focus for Lent is usually finding some self-denial, like going without chocolate. And this can be a good thing. But it is not a good thing if the self-denial stops there. If all of what we do is only to show we can in fact go without something for a small period of time, then what we do becomes more about our actions and pride. It is so we can feel good about ourselves.
“Without this, [conversion of the heart, interior conversion] such penances remain sterile and false.” (CCC 1430) This is not to suggest there may not be for someone value in giving up chocolate. But what it does mean is that what we do, like giving up chocolate, is meant to change our hearts to become more like Christ’s.
“However, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures, and works of penance.” (CCC 1430) To understand more fully the intent of this paragraph, consider the biblical verses connected to this expression.
“Yet even now—oracle of the LORD—return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning. Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God, For he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting in punishment.” Joel 2:12-13
“Wash yourselves clean! Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.” Isaiah 1:16-17
“[But] take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” Matthew 6:1-6
“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to others to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.” Matthew 6:16-18
“Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed.” (CCC 1431) This is much harder than a simple display of will power. This means real and radical change.
And this type of conversion is not easy. The Catechism references “a salutary pain and sadness” that involves an affliction of spirit (animi cruciatis) and a repentance of heart (conpunctio cordis). In other words, true conversion requires some pain. Just as someone exercises may say, no pain, no gain, the same is true for spiritual conversion.
But, we are not simply seeking to look and feel better physically. Rather, we are working for that peace of the heart that only comes when we put forth the conversion we need to become closer to God. “At the same time, it entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with hope of God’s mercy and trust in the help of his grace.” (CCC 1431)
This internal conversion is always first a work of God’s grace. We can only enter into conversion when we allow God to work with our desire to convert to make it a reality. As is mentioned in the book of the prophet Ezekiel it is God who will replace our stony hearts with natural hearts. The purpose of our desire for conversion is the more fully experience the “greatness of God’s love.”
Moreover, it is to arrive at a point where “our heart is shaken by the horror and weight of sin and begins to fear offending God by sin and being separated from him.” It is born from the vision of Jesus, on the cross, pierced by our sins. And so all internal conversion comes from a desire to be more closely united to Christ.
Penance during Lent
Lent is traditionally about prayer, fasting and almsgiving, which according to the bible and the Church Fathers reflect three ways penance is performed. The Catechism inidcates these forms of penance “express conversion in relation oneself, to God, and to others.” (CCC 1434)
The Catechism outlines specific actions for penance. “Conversion is accomplished in daily life by gestures of reconciliation, concern for the poor, the exercise and defense of justice and right, by the admission of faults to one’s brethren, fraternal correction, revision of life, examination of conscience, spiritual direction, acceptance of suffering, endurance of persecution for the sake of righteousness. Taking up one’s cross each day and following Jesus is the surest way of penance.” (CCC 1435)
And so as we enter this season of Lent, this forms the framework for our observance of the season of Lent. It forms our answer to the question, “What are you doing for Lent?” But it does so by helping us to understand the primacy of conversion of our hearts (a radical reorientation of our lives) as the primary purpose of these actions.
The traditional definition of prayer is the “raising of one’s mind and heart to God.” And so the question for Lent is how is it we more frequently and deeply do this? For too often in our lives we reduce payer only to asking God for this or that. While bringing our needs to God in prayer is a fine way to pray, it cannot be the only way.
Prayer is an encounter with God. And so the question for this season of Lent is this. In what ways do we make room in our lives for this encounter with God. Do we seek to get to Mass on days other than Sundays? Do we pray the Liturgy of the Hours? Do we start Lectio Divina, or reading the bible, or just spending time in silence asking God to come into our hearts?
What is true is that we simply do not know how to pray. Saint Paul says, “We do not know how to pray as we ought.” (Romans 8:26) So perhaps it is simply a matter of asking the Spirit of God to pray for us, for “the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.”
The way to start may very well to acknowledge before God that we do not know how to pray. Perhaps in whatever way we choose to pray we begin by saying, “Lord, teach me to pray.” It was the disciples who made this very request of Jesus. And it is Jesus who moves our heart to desire Jesus in the first place.
And as the Catechism reminds us, “it is the heart that prays.” (CCC 2562) And so it becomes important, especially during the season of Lent, to remember the important place conversion of the heart plays in every aspect of the actions of Lent. Everything about Lent is a desire to allow God to change us more and more into the image of his Son.
Fasting is meant to be that sacrifice that teaches us to become more generous. It is not simply a matter of reminding ourselves we have willpower. Nor is it a matter that we simply inflict pain on ourselves solely for the purpose of pain. Fasting is about uniting ourselves with the suffering Jesus in order that we may be joined to him more fully in the ways in which we live.
Fasting is not something that turns us inward, but rather something that should turn us outward, making us more generous to those in need, more willing to share the faith with others, more willing to be kind and compassionate. As Isaiah the prophet reminds us:
Is this the manner of fasting I would choose, a day to afflict oneself? To bow one’s head like a reed, and lie upon sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?
Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking off every yoke?
Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own flesh? Isaiah 58: 5-7
The purpose of fasting is to help us to realize our willpower, or to inflict pain and suffering upon ourselves to see how much we are able to endure. Rather, it is always, first and foremost something that helps us to see in what ways our heart still needs to be turned more fully toward Jesus. It is a means to an end: a means to the total conversion of our hearts to God.
We must remember the two great commandments, to love God, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The New Testament is filled with reminders of the connection between these two commandments. Saint John reminds us, “If anyone says, “I love God,” but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”
Saint James tells us this. “
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Indeed someone may say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.” James 2: 14-18
And the Catechism of the Catholic Church stresses the deep connection between love of God and love of neighbor. “Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.” (CCC 1822)
The Friar Celebrates Lent
The Friar has many ways to help you celebrate the season of Lent. There will be our daily reflections, “Spend 5 with Jesus“, there will be our homilies, we will be reading “Meditations for the Time of Retreat” by Saint John Baptist de la Salle, the Confessions of Saint Augustine, and will be starting a new series on discernment. Have a holy Lent!
On the friar, you can listen to our homilies (based on the readings of the day) and reflections. You can also ask us to pray for you or to pray for others. You can subscribe to our website to be informed whenever we publish an update.