Lent begins this year on February 22. This liturgical season, which lasts 40 days, is intended to prepare us for the celebration of Easter, which falls on April 9 this year.
In order to live the season well, it is good for us to reflect on its meaning and then we can best decide what we should “do” for Lent.
The practices associated with the Lenten season are three: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These are three forms of “penance.” To perform an act of penance is meant to express our sorrow for sins and our sincere desire to change our behavior to be more in line with the Gospel.
We choose these actions so that we may learn to overcome bad habits (our sin and ways of selfishness) and to develop virtues, the good habits that enable us to live more the freedom of the Gospel.
So, what is the best way to decide what to do for Lent? This is both a personal and a communal question.
The Christian community is entrusted to be ambassadors for Christ, helping others to know God’s love and to invite them into a living relationship with Jesus and with his Church. So practices that local communities choose to do together during Lent ought to be given a certain priority.
In regard to prayer, does your parish have special times of prayer together that express the themes of Lent?
Many are familiar with the practice of praying the Stations of the Cross. These are depictions on the walls of parish churches that suggest for our meditation moments of the Way of the Cross that Jesus experienced on Good Friday.
The pope celebrates a version of this at that time at the Colosseum in Rome, often inviting people from around the world to offer timely reflections on our need to care for others as we want to care for Jesus.
Other forms of prayer that may be highlighted are the Rosary, the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary, reading of Scripture and times of adoration of Jesus in the Eucharist.
When your community has the opportunity for prayer together, it is good for you to participate.
In regard to fasting, this is the form of Lenten practice that most people think about as “giving up something for Lent.” It can take two forms for individuals. One is to work on getting rid of bad habits. Some have successfully given up minor addictions to things like a daily nightcap or tobacco and have chosen not to pick up the practice after Lent has ended.
Another form is to give up something that is not harmful in itself, such as sweets, watching television, use of social media, and the like. This is an effort to bring into control ordinary desires, to give a greater opportunity for prayer and good works.
At times, parishes and spiritual groups choose to walk this effort together in order to support one another. It is important not to let this practice just become routine, but always to remember why it was chosen.
In regard to almsgiving, this practice is practical charity. It is a matter of sacrifice for the needs of others.
Organizations such as the St. Vincent DePaul Society, the Knights of Columbus, and other such charitable groups often try to do forms of almsgiving that supply the needs of the poor in local communities. Many missions use the Lenten time to request financial aid for their projects.
Opportunities for personal participation in feeding the hungry at soup kitchens and food pantries are made available during the Lenten season. For example, parishes and schools often collaborate with Operation Rice Bowl, which raises funds for Catholic Relief Services. They have done a very good job in making resources that emphasize prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
When we participate in group efforts to practice prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we experience directly the fruits of unity in the will of God. It is also good for individuals and families to decide for themselves how to live Lent.
Take time to consider each of the practices for yourself. How will you grow in prayer during Lent? What area of your life needs a bit of discipline, so that you may give up something to take a step toward greater freedom? How will you give of yourself to others, attending to their needs more than to your own?
To sacrifice is to be made holy. How will you choose to live this holy season?
Join the conversation. Send your thoughts to the editor Jon Sweeney.
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