With Lent creeping up upon us, I want to continue my series of reflections on questions frequently asked of me as a Catholic. Lent is certainly a time of year when even practising Catholics can question or debate the reasoning behind some of our Lenten rituals.
I have been asked why Catholics focus so much on the notion of penance. Since Christ died for our sins and rose again on Easter Sunday to save us all, they wonder why we insist on “punishing” ourselves with acts of self-sacrifice during the weeks leading up to this most significant Christian feast. They also wonder how avoiding a certain food, such as meat, can actually enhance anyone’s ability to worship.
I can appreciate these questions. Of course we Catholics know that even though we are sinners, Christ came to save us. We don’t believe that prayer, penance, almsgiving, and fasting will make us more deserving of that love or of our redemption. By contrast, we know that ours is a forgiving God who died for us, even though we are completely unworthy of His grace. So, why do we have Lenten customs?
Father Mike Schmitz poses similar questions: “What does God want? For you to suffer? Is the point of Lent to just grit your teeth and bear it, and if you happen to like fish then you just aren’t going to get holier because holiness comes from pain?” In reply, he states, “NO! The heart of holiness is love, and the way we express our love is through obedience. Abstaining from meat won’t make a person closer to God. But having a posture of obedience to the Church that Christ established will.”
Our Lenten customs help us forge a closer bond with Jesus and a greater appreciation for the trials he suffered as he prepared for that fateful day in Calvary. Every time I avoid a food I love or deliberately prepare meatless meals on a Friday, I remember Christ’s love for me. These aren’t superstitious rituals I believe will earn my admission into heaven, but chances to encourage prayers of thanksgiving. For vegetarians or those with dietary concerns, an equally deliberate sacrifice would suffice, as long as self-discipline and a remembrance of Good Friday are involved (there is always the spirit of the law, in addition to the letter of the law).
Eating one full meal or two smaller meals on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday most certainly results in hunger pangs which remind me to put aside the needs of my body and focus on my soul. Just as our bodies need nourishment, our souls must be fed. On our busiest days, we still manage to fill our bodies sufficiently, yet often end up “fasting” with regard to our spiritual lives. During Lent, we are encouraged to do the reverse, filling the hunger of our souls with prayer and allow our bodies to yearn a little for once.
Bishop Robert Barron reflects on the fact that “the pleasures of the body have a way of becoming too domineering.”
“Catholics aren’t puritans; we like the pleasures of the body.”
“We fast from [sensual desires] purposely so as to allow the deeper hungers to arise.”
“When you suppress certain desires, other deeper ones can emerge.”
Going to weekday Masses creates a greater desire to be in Christ’s presence. Avoiding certain favourite foods and giving extra money to the less fortunate all create a desire to examine my soul and work a little harder to seek God’s plan for me.
The discipline and obedience of Lent can be difficult at times, but Lent reminds us that, although none of us is worthy, we are all called to the Easter feast. What a wondrous feast it is when we exercise the muscles of self-control, when we allow physical hunger to inspire to help those whose basic needs aren’t met, and when we deliberately make time for extra prayer.
I don’t feel punished, but privileged to have learned Lenten practices which encourage the removal of distractions from my life. Lent allows me to prioritize my focus, as I strive to appreciate a fragment of the magnitude of Jesus’ love for me.
I need the spiritual discipline of Lent in order to exclaim a truly joyful “Alleluia” on Easter Sunday.