Lent lies at the very heart of our Catholic faith. Each year, on Ash Wednesday, we begin our Lenten retreat. We are blessed with ashes, reminding us that we are dust, and to dust we will return. For the next 40 days we are led into the desert of our own hearts to look within, face our sins, and ask for God’s mercy.
A time of cleansing
While Lent was originally intended as a time of preparation for those being baptized at Easter, it gradually became a time when all of us get ready to renew our own baptismal promises. It is the season in which we prepare both individually and as a Church for the Second Coming of our Lord and Savior. It is the season when we reflect on the dying and rising of Christ that has made our salvation possible. Even more than that, it is the season when we enter into Christ’s dying and rising as we seek to purify, cleanse and nourish our bodies, minds and souls.
From the beginning
Lent has been a part of the Church year from the earliest days. At the Council of Nicaea in 325, the bishops were already talking about the “40 days of Lent,” and by the end of the fourth century, St. Cyril of Jerusalem was presenting prebaptismal instructions called Catechetical Lectures, and Pope St. Leo was teaching that the faithful must “fulfill with their fasts the apostolic institution of the 40 days.”
Forty days was chosen as the time of preparation because it was symbolic of the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness before embarking on his public ministry: “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry” (Mt 4:1-2), as well as in remembrance of the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the desert before entering the Promised Land.
Season of joy
Lent is a time of sacrifice and discipline, but it should not be a time of sadness. Instead it should be a season of great joy. The first Preface for the Mass in Lent clearly reminds us of this:
For by your gracious gift each year
your faithful await the sacred paschal feasts
with the joy of minds made pure.
As Christians we are stirring up our faith and love for God and each other so that, on Easter, we are ready to meet the risen Lord refreshed and restored.
Father James Shafer is pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Fort Wayne, Ind. This article is adapted from the pamphlet “Lent: Keep it Simple” (OSV, $15.95 for a packet of 50).
KISS and the 1-1-1 Plan
Here’s a helpful acronym to help you stay focused during Lent:
Keep • It • Simple • Sinner
The best Lent is one in which we enter the season wholeheartedly. All too often, people either take on too much or don’t take on enough. The solution is to simplify our disciplines, focus our intentions and concentrate more clearly on our spiritual goals.
To keep it simple this Lent, try the “1-1-1 Plan”: one sin, one add-in, one give-up. Concentrate or focus on one sin or fault that is getting in the way of your relationship with God and with others. Add one positive activity that will deepen your prayer and spiritual life (especially if you think you are too busy to put anything more into an impossibly busy schedule!). Deny yourself something you really like or are attached to.
Most of us, if we are honest, know at least one area of sin to focus on during Lent. If you aren’t sure, or are having trouble narrowing it down, use the traditional seven deadly sins as a guide (at right). (Contrary to what one may gather from all the emphasis on sex these days, there are six deadly sins besides lust!) In fact, some of the other deadly sins are even deadlier, especially pride, or self-love, which St. Thomas Aquinas called, “the cause of every sin.”
If you need help in identifying which sin to concentrate on this year, ask God in prayer to reveal it to you. If you still aren’t sure, ask your family or close friends. Just be sure you are willing to listen to them and accept their assessment.
The next step in 1-1-1 Lent is to add one thing of God to your routine that you haven’t been doing. Because we are all so busy, it’s a good idea to not just pick an add-in, but to schedule a regular time when you put it on your calendar so you don’t “forget.”
Ideas for add-ins are pretty much endless, but some include:
- Go to Mass in the middle of the week
- Attend the Stations of the Cross as a family
- Read a Gospel
- Volunteer at a social ministry
- Get up early to pray
One give up
Giving up something for Lent has been part of the Church almost since the beginning. While giving up sweets and alcohol are time-honored, consider giving up one thing that you really like or enjoy. Just make sure it is something that lets you feel the deprivation and is at least a little bit challenging. Make it difficult but doable.
- Fast from fault finding and nagging, and fast from a critical tongue or a closed mind.
- Give up impulse purchases.
- Give up an unhealthy habit, like smoking.
- Limit the time you watch television or surf the Web.
- Give up fast food and donate the money you save.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church also refers to these sins as “capital sins” and explains why they are the most dangerous. “Vices can be classified according to the virtues they oppose, or also be linked to capital sins which Christian experience has distinguished, following St. John Cassian and St. Gregory the Great. They are called “capital” because they engender other sins, other vices. They are pride, avarice [greed], envy, wrath, lust, gluttony and sloth” (No. 1866).
1. Pride: an excessive love of self or the desire to be better or more important than others.
“Respect for the human person proceeds by way of respect for the principle that ‘everyone should look upon his neighbor (without exception) as “another self,” above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity’” (No. 1931).
2. Lust: an intense desire, usually for sexual pleasure, but also for money, power or fame.
“The God of promises always warned man against seduction by what from the beginning has seemed ‘good for food ... a delight to the eyes ... to be desired to make one wise’” (No. 2541).
3. Gluttony: overconsumption, usually of food or drink.
“The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco or medicine” (No. 2290).
4. Greed: the desire for and love of possessions.
“Sin ... is a failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods” (No. 1849).
5. Sloth (or Acedia): physical laziness, also disinterest in spiritual matters or neglecting spiritual growth.
“Acedia or spiritual sloth goes so far as to refuse the joy that comes from God and to be repelled by divine goodness” (No. 2094).
6. Anger or wrath: uncontrolled feelings of hatred or rage.
“Anger is a desire for revenge ... The Lord says, ‘Everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment’” (No. 2302).
7. Envy: sadness or desire for the possessions, happiness, talents or abilities of another
“Envy can lead to the worst crimes. ‘Through the devil’s envy death entered the world’” (No. 2553).
The Big Three
|Almsgiving is central to Lent. Thinkstock
We aren’t just spiritual beings. We are also physical entities and the way to the soul is through the body. That’s why Lenten discipline has historically centered on the “big three” of fasting, almsgiving and prayer.
Fasting is not just a spiritual diet. By denying our bodies, our physical hunger reminds us of the hunger of our souls for God, our longing for a deeper relationship with our Lord.
Almsgiving teaches us to separate ourselves from material possessions. By freely giving of our money and possessions, we learn to trust the Lord more deeply for our own daily needs.
Finally, an emphasis on prayer during Lent is a way to stir up our love and ardor by having a deepening conversation with the Almighty. Remember that the light of God’s love shines more brightly in the darkness of the recognition of our own sinfulness.