Our website is made possible by displaying online ads to our visitors.
Please consider supporting us by whitelisting our site.

Getting the most out of Lent

First slide

Feb. 26 marks Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, a 40-day preparation (not including Sundays) for Easter. The word Lent itself derives from the Anglo-Saxon word lenctin, which means spring. The 40-day period also has significance: Moses stayed on Mount Sinai for 40 days; Elijah walked 40 days to Mount Horeb; and Jesus fasted and prayed for 40 days in the desert before beginning his public ministry. Therefore, our 40-day spiritual preparation should be a new spring, whereby we prune ourselves of the dead wood of sin and imperfections, grow in grace and strengthen our faith. The commitment to this preparation is symbolized by the imposition of ashes: the priest says, “Remember, that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” or “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

The Gospel for Ash Wednesday (Mt 6:1-18) provides a schema for this preparation: fasting, prayer and almsgiving. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1434) highlights the importance of these three forms of penance:  “conversion in relationship to oneself (fasting), to God (prayer), and to others (almsgiving). First, fasting.  We are body and soul, and so fasting intensifies a physical dimension to our prayers: even though we may not be spiritually engaged in prayer, physically, we are praying through fasting. Fasting is a powerful weapon against evil: when the apostles were not successful in exorcising a demon, Jesus said, “This kind does not come out except by prayer and fasting” (Mt 17:21). 

Here we can include abstinence, i.e. giving up something for Lent. We ought to give up something we enjoy, but also something we think we cannot live without, e.g. video games, alcohol, coffee, etc. Here is a sacrifice which will not only challenge but also liberate us.

Second, prayer. Prayer is essential. During Lent, a good practice would be to attend daily Mass, make a weekly Holy Hour, pray the rosary, and pray the Stations of the Cross. These prayers may be offered individually or as a family.

Here we can include availing ourselves of the sacrament of penance. Take time to do prayerfully a thorough examination of conscience, recognizing not only the sinful commissions but also the omissions. Ask the Holy Spirit for enlightenment. Then, with real contrition, go to confession and receive the healing graces our Lord offers through this sacrament. No matter how long it may have been since the last confession, everyone ought to make a good confession during Lent so that we can truly rise to new life at Easter.

Third, almsgiving. While we think of almsgiving as giving money to those in need, we could broaden that to include giving of our time and talent, as well as our treasure. The time and talent given to help someone else is more precious and meritorious than any other act. The most worthy almsgiving is sacrificial, not giving from our surplus, but from our want, as described in the story of the Widow’s Mite (Lk 21:1-4). In the Book of Tobit we read, “Almsgiving saves from death and expiates every sin” (Tb 12:8-9). For example, money saved by not eating at restaurants, going to the movie theater, or eating desserts could be given to a particular charity or placed in the parish poor box. Closets and toy chests could be purged of old, forgotten, or seldom used items and given to charity. A visit and the offering of some refreshment could be made to an elderly person who is alone.

While Lent is an intense time to renew our relationship with the Lord, it is not all “doom and gloom.”  Keep in mind that Sundays and the solemnities of St. Joseph (March 19) and the Annunciation (March 25) are technically “free days,” when we rejoice and therefore may partake of whatever has been offered up for Lent. On St. Joseph’s day, either at the parish or at home, one can have the St. Joseph’s table (which includes an array of bread, wine and sweets). Here we remember the holy man who provided for his family, Jesus and Mary, and ask for his protection and support for our own families. On the Feast of the Annunciation (also known as “Lady’s Day”), we remember the mystery of the incarnation, and how Mary received the message of Archangel Gabriel and conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. Here traditionally people bless their gardens, share “Annunciation Bread” (a Russian custom), or enjoy waffles (a Swedish custom). So these festivities help us persevere in our Lenten journey and anticipate the great joy of Easter.

Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Church in Potomac Falls and episcopal vicar for faith formation and director of the Office of Catechetics.

Find out more

More information about these practices and others may be found in the book, “Celebrating a Holy Catholic Easter,” by Fr. Saunders.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020