Every year, the Catholic Church goes into the desert.
For 40 days, Catholics pray, fast, and give of their time, talents, and resources. Lent is a season where Christians accompany Jesus in the wilderness and strip themselves of creature comfort to refocus on their spiritual journey.
“The main point of Lent is conversion. That doesn’t mean merely a small course correction or a small little thing we have to fix. Ultimately, conversion means we’re turning with Jesus, that we’re living truly with Christ,” said Father Roger Landry, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts who serves as an attaché for the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations.
Beyond a six-week grind
Seen through that lens, Lent is far more than a six-week period where Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays and “give something up” like chocolate or candy. In the three pillars of Lent – prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – this penitential season offers the opportunity for a “reset.”
“Anything short of that is not going to hit the mark that Lent points us to,” Father Landry said.
In Paragraph 540, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that during the “solemn forty days of Lent, the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.” In the fourth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, we learn that the Spirit led Jesus, after his baptism, into the desert “to be tempted by the Devil.”
For 40 days, Christ prayed, fasted and resisted Satan’s temptations to attain earthly power and test God the Father. Jesus emerged from the wilderness tired and hungry, but ready for his public ministry; a road he knew would end on Calvary.
Meaning of ashes
“The theme of Lent is given to us on Ash Wednesday,” Father Landry said. “It’s to repent of anything that leads us from the Lord and to truly grow in faith by believing the Gospel. Everything that comes afterward is for helping us turn more and more in faith toward Christ.”
The Lenten journey begins on Ash Wednesday, when faithful who attend church that day will have an ashen cross traced on their foreheads, with the priest or minister saying, “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return” or “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” That act symbolizes our mortality, our need for ongoing repentance, and the call to continual conversion and holiness.
Holiness in everyday action
“Lent is meant to make you holy, so everything that we’re going to do during Lent has to be with that end in mind,” said Father Landry, who generally encourages daily Mass or a half-hour period of daily prayer. Fasting has to take into consideration someone’s physical and psychological health, though it should be something that reminds one that they’re imitating Christ’s self-denial.
With regard to almsgiving, Father Landry said he encourages people to reach out to someone each day during Lent, such as a great aunt in a nursing home, an elderly shut-in neighbor with no living relatives, or a high school friend who recently lost a parent.
“A small reach-out can be a phone call, a letter, even a text message or email, to give alms of themselves each day during that season,” Father Landry said. “That is something that will help them reorder their relationship with their neighbor far more than writing one check to a good cause.”
Ordering the ‘interior house’
As a penitential season, Catholics are called to do penance during Lent. Interior penance can be expressed in many and various ways.
“Penance is sincere sorrow in action,” Father Landry said. “We can say sorry to God for our sin, but penance involves those practices that help us to turn our life around so that we’re no longer doing the same things that wound our relationship with God and others.”
In Paragraph 1434, the Catechism says Scripture and the Church Fathers insist, above all, on three forms of penance: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Those forms express conversion in relation to oneself, to God and to others.
During Lent, Catholics should dedicate a little more time each day for prayer. That could be a half-hour of contemplative prayer, reading the Bible, praying the Liturgy of the Hours, attending Daily Mass, a weekly Holy Hour, or renewing a devotion to the rosary.
Prayer, temperance attunes toward God
Popular Lenten devotions such as the Stations of the Cross on Fridays — where the faithful spiritually accompany Jesus during his Passion — are meant to deepen that pillar of prayer.
“They’re not just good holy practices,” Father Landry said. “They’re ways to help us attune our heart and our life to what God is doing.”
The Church calls on Catholics, ages 18 to 59, to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Canonically speaking, that means a person on those days is permitted to eat one full meal, as well as two small meals that together do not equal to a full meal. However, that is a minimalistic approach that Father Landry said “is never going to make us holy.”
“At a practical level, we need to be regularly doing something that allows us to keep our appetite in check,” said Father Landry, who encourages people to abstain from soda, coffee, and alcohol and to only drink water during Lent.
He also advises people to give up all desserts, not just chocolate.
“If we’re able to do those types of things, it’s going to be much easier for us control our appetite in general, so that we’re able to obey God rather than our lower nature,” said Father Landry, who added that fasting also helps the faithful to cultivate mercy for the poor and hungry.
“There are almost 800 million people who go without adequate food in the world,” Father Landry said. “So fasting allows us to have a great solidarity with them as well.”
Almsgiving – the forgotten ‘other’
In that same spirit, almsgiving is “a witness to fraternal charity” and “a work of justice pleasing to God,” as the Catechism says in Paragraph 2462. Almsgiving can take the form of donating money and goods to the poor and performing other acts of charity. Special collections during Lent, such as Catholic Relief Services’ popular Rice Bowl program, present opportunities to give alms.
Almsgiving, which is derived from the Greek word for mercy, is intended to transform the Christian’s heart to have genuine compassion for one’s neighbor.
“Like prayer gets our relationship with God right, almsgiving helps us to get our relationship with our neighbor right,” Father Landry said, “So that we recognize that God is calling us to love our neighbor as he has loved us first, to the point of real sacrifice.”
The Sundays of Lent, which are not counted in the season’s 40 days, retain a joyful Easter character. A tradition in the Church holds that those Sundays provide a weekly respite for people who are seriously fasting during Lent. Deciding whether to relax one’s Lenten fasting on Sundays is a matter of individual conscience.
Worthy Lent draws to True Christ
Lent ends on Holy Thursday, which marks the beginning of the Easter Triduum, which includes Good Friday and culminates with the Mass of the Resurrection of the Lord at the Easter Vigil. The Triduum is the summit of the Church’s liturgical year. Father Landry said celebrating the Triduum is essential to living a good Lent.
“If our Lent preparation is going to do its thing, then it’s going to help us live a truly holy Triduum as the most important time of the year,” Father Landry said. “It can make us holy by keeping us very close to Christ throughout the most important events in our salvation.”
BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.