As Lent has come upon us again, we spiritually focus on penitent preparation for the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. As our Bishops remind us, “In a particular way during Lent, we are asked to devote ourselves to the spiritual and corporal works of mercy that ‘remind us that faith finds expression in concrete everyday actions meant to help our neighbors in body and spirit.’”
But what if you have not yet decided on your sacrifice for this year? We enlisted the help of our readers and followers, so you can look to them for some suggestions. We conducted a survey of about 1,500 Catholics, asking them about their plans for Lent. The most common category people selected? (They could choose up to four). Seventy-two percent will increase prayer time this Lent. This was followed closely by fasting or giving something up (seventy-one percent). About eighteen percent selected the third leg of the lenten stool, giving alms, while ten percent selected “other.” About thirteen percent still weren’t sure, so hopefully they are reading this post to get some ideas.
To help those who are unsure, we asked for some concrete examples. Daily Mass or adoration were among the most commonly listed ideas. Also, many people will find time for more spiritual reading, whether the Bible, lives of the saints, or the Catechism of the Catholic Church. When it comes to giving up (the most common phrase listed) some mentioned sweets or alcohol. Others will be fasting from Facebook and other social media platforms. Similarly, some said they will only use their phones to make phone calls. Others chose to take what was already expected and do a little more of it, such as adding additional fasting and abstinence days to the calendar. Others focused on helping the poor, some with donations, others by volunteering at shelters, or taking time to make or donate clothes to those in need. If you would like to share what you are giving up, and see what others have, you can anonymously do so HERE.
Where does the tradition of giving something up for Lent come from? As a liturgical season, Lent traces itself to the early days of the Church. Herbert Thurston points out that, to the earliest Christians, what we think of as Lent didn’t occur annually, but weekly: every Friday was Good Friday, with fasting; every Sunday, Easter, and celebration. As the liturgical calendar developed and Holy Week was fixed annually, in the spring, the fasting and penitential spirit of Fridays expanded to all of Lent. St. Athanasius mentioned a period of fasting for forty days before Holy Week as far back as AD 331.
Why forty days? This recalls Jesus’ own forty days of fasting in the desert prior to beginning his public ministry. Since Easter is about renewing our own baptism, we annually prepare for our own calling as Christians. We are called to be Christ to the world and reach the poor and the afflicted now as he did 2,000 years ago. So it makes sense, that, just as Christ prepared his body for what was to come with forty days of fasting in the desert, that the Church—the body of Christ on earth—retreats into its own “desert” for forty and fasts days before beginning anew.
For us this desert, instead of lacking food and water, lacks Facebook, or television, or warm showers. Remember the purpose, though. It isn’t an opportunity to do something you should be doing already. Nor is it a contest to see who can give up the most, and tell everyone about it. We strip away everything else so that we can focus on our reliance on God. He could make Facebook likes out of stones, but we must learn to live on his word.