By Lorene Hanley Duquin
Ask Catholics what they're doing for Lent this year, and they'll probably tell you that they are giving up a favorite food, a favorite pastime or anything else they really love but isn't essential in their lives.
Giving up something for Lent fosters self-discipline and tempers our desires. It is a form of fasting. It is a form of penance. It promotes spiritual growth.
If you're giving up something for Lent, that's great. But think also about the possibility of doing something positive to bolster your spiritual life and make the world a better place. Look for ways that you can increase your knowledge of your faith, strengthen your spiritual life or perform special acts of mercy and kindness at home, at work, in your parish or in your community.
Giving alms has always been an important part of Lent. For many people, it means giving money to Catholic charities or some other good cause.
But the concept of almsgiving goes much deeper. It is our response to the teachings of Jesus that encourage us to reach out to people in need -- not just with our money -- but with our time and our talents.
Lent gives us the opportunity to cultivate a spirit of generosity. It gives us a chance to share what we have and who we are with other people. It puts us in communion with others and helps us understand that we are all members of the Body of Christ.
Think carefully about how you will share your time, your talents and your treasure during Lent. "Keep in mind the words of the Lord Jesus who himself said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35).
If you haven't gone to confession in a while, Lent is the perfect time to reconcile yourself with God and the Church. Most parishes have communal penance services with prayers and Scripture readings, followed by the opportunity for individual confession (a necessity for absolution of mortal sins). Or you can also make a private appointment with a priest.
Preparation for confession should include an examination of conscience, which means you think back on sins you have committed since your last confession.
What happens during confession depends on the priest and the person. Most people still start with the formula: "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been (state the number of months or years) since my last confession."
If you can't remember the words or you don't recall how long it's been, don't worry. Just tell the priest it's been a long time, and he will guide you through the process.
What you will experience is the healing gift of God's love, the chance to start over with a clean conscience, and an overwhelming sense of gratitude.
Lent offers opportunities to pass on your faith to children. Here are some ideas for making Lenten memories:
Days of Abstinence: No meat can be eaten on Ash Wednesday and all of the Fridays during Lent. This applies to all Catholics 14 and older.
Days of Fast: Only one full meal is permitted on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday for Catholics between 18 and 59. Two smaller meals are permitted, but the small meals should not equal a second full meal. Drinking coffee, tea and water between meals is allowed. Snacks between meals are not allowed.
During the 12th century, churches in Europe began re-enacting the Gospel account of the passion and death of Jesus. Many towns and villages had their own plays.
There was, however, a dark side to Passion plays because they aroused anti-Jewish sentiments and resulted in violence against Jewish people.
In 1988, the U.S. Bishops Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs issued criteria that stipulate that Passion plays must avoid negative caricatures of Jews and accusations that all of the Jewish people opposed Jesus.
Today, parishes and youth groups perform Passion plays and living Stations of the Cross with great sensitivity because "the Church and the Jewish people are linked together essentially on the level of identity."
Here are ways to boost your spiritual life during Lent:
Pretzels originated in Europe during the Middle Ages. A monk was making unleavened bread for Lent with flour and water because eggs, milk and lard were not consumed as part of the Lenten fast. He twisted some of the dough into the shape of people praying with both arms folded across their chests. He decided it would be a perfect treat for children learning to say their prayers. He called the treats "pretiola," the Latin word for "little reward."
Telling the story of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus was an important part of the early Christian's experience. In the late fourth century, people began making pilgrimages to the Holy Land, where they would follow the path that Jesus took to Calvary. During the Middle Ages, when outbreaks of war made it impossible for people to travel to the Holy Land, people created a Via Dolorosa, or "Sorrowful Way," in their towns and villages. They erected paintings or sculptures depicting the Passion of Christ along a processional route or inside a church. By the mid-18th century, the number of stations was fixed at 14 and the devotion known as the Stations of the Cross, also called the Way of the Cross, became widespread.
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