I have many friends who were raised Catholic but stopped going to Church or actively practicing their faith years ago, except they still faithfully give something up for Lent every year. I even have a Jewish friend who does it. In a culture so obsessed with instant gratification and convenience, a practice of self-denial really stands out as counter-cultural.
Is Lent popular because we seek discipline and look for ways to improve ourselves? Perhaps at some level. But I think at a deeper level, we sense that in the voluntary sacrifice of something good we access something better — something sacred. If our Lenten practices are going to be something more than the resolutions we take on at New Year’s — if we want to be transformed this Lent — it’s worth being intentional about our motivations and intentions.
Wants vs. needs
The paradox of living in 21st century America is that we have more material wealth than ever before in human history, yet we feel lonelier and more lost than ever. Even those of us living rather meagerly by today’s standards have conveniences, knowledge, and comforts beyond the wildest dreams of royalty just a few centuries ago.
Yet for all our material abundance, are we more satisfied? When he was tempted by the devil with worldly wealth, Jesus famously said that we “do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Lent — and the sacrifices we adopt as part of it — remind us that we will not find true happiness in the things of this world.
If I go without TV, chocolate, alcohol, or social media for 40 days, I discover that I don’t really need those things as much as I thought I did. Going without those conveniences reveals that they don’t really make me happy, and in some way, I am a bit more free without them. So every time I hunger for chocolate, thirst for beer, or itch to check my phone, it’s a reminder that at the root of each of those longings is a hunger, thirst, and itch for my Creator, who alone can satisfy.
“Remember, o man, that ye are but dust”
When Lent kicked off on Ash Wednesday, and the priest marked your forehead with ash, he reminded you that “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It’s a rather doom-and-gloom pronouncement, but every once and a while we need that kind of reminder.
Ask anyone who has survived a near-death experience and they will tell you that it can provide a great deal of focus and clarity to the seeming complexity of daily life. Lent is a chance to contemplate our mortality, our contingency on God, and allow it to refocus us on what’s important (without a life-threatening situation.)
Preparing for Easter
It’s easy to forget this, but Lent is really just a pregame for the main event: Easter.
You wouldn’t know it by the way most Christians celebrate it (or barely celebrate it), but Easter is the most important Christian holiday. Our joyful observance of Easter should blow away our solemn observance of Lent. The Easter season is actually longer than Lent (or Advent or Christmas for that matter).
Part of the reason for fasting during Lent is so that the Easter feasting to follow is that much better. The eight days of the octave of Easter (and to a lesser extent, the 42 days after that until Pentecost) should be a total party. It should be like a six-week Mardi Gras.
One year I gave up nothing for Lent. Instead, I opted to try to be faithful to what I had already committed to doing in my daily life but had largely been failing to do. Basically, I just wanted to focus on improving my daily routines. So I took more time for prayer and I think I exercised more (I don’t remember to be honest — it was THAT unmemorable).
What I found when Easter arrived was that I felt envious of my friends who had been fasting. They were all celebrating with sweets and coffee and alcohol and other things they had been depriving themselves of for weeks. Easter didn’t really feel that special that year to me. Every year since, I’ve made sure to fast from something. It helps me to appreciate the joy of Easter on a primal level.
It's not about me
If you went to Mass on Ash Wednesday, you heard the Gospel reading where Jesus warns us to not pray, fast, or do righteous deeds so that others may see them, but rather because we love God. Militant atheists will sometimes criticize believers for needing heaven and hell to motivate them to act morally. Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount aren’t all that different.
Various saints through the millennia have expressed this great truth in different ways. St. Bernard of Clairvoux said to that to act charitably for our own benefit is only the second of four stages on the way to perfect love. St. Ignatius of Loyola’s great motto ad maiorem Dei gloriam, “for the greater glory of God,” encouraged his followers to do everything for God’s glory rather than our own.
However it’s phrased, we should remember that our spiritual observances should point beyond ourselves. That’s not to say we shouldn’t benefit from them or even focus on an area of weakness. This year for Lent, I hope you do lose weight, or curb your sweet tooth, or become more generous, or start praying more, or clean up that dirty mouth. But we should remember that self-improvement is a perk — not the point — of Lenten observance.
First and foremost, let us draw close to the One who made us, calls us, and makes us holy.