By Father Christopher Johnson, O.P.
As we once again enter the beginning of another Lenten season, the all-important question of “what should I do for Lent this year?” more than likely has come to mind. Before you or I decide to once again abstain from cookies, candies, carbonated drinks, or coffee beverages for the season of Lent, it is worthwhile considering the purpose of the season of Lent. In doing so, we can gain a better sense of the purpose of these resolutions, and what they can do to help us with our spiritual journeys.
The season of Lent has its origins in the catechumenate preparation period for their entrance into the Christian Church at Easter Vigil. In the early Church (2nd-4th centuries), initiated Christians were encouraged to join in this time of prayer and fasting- recalling their own baptism, but also those preparing to join the Church. For catechumens, Lent was a long and rigorous period of examination, catechesis, and ascetical cleansing of body and soul during the forty days leading up to Easter.
As infant baptism became the norm, the number of new initiates decreased, but the practice of forty days of fasting continued.
It is worth noting that early on, Lent required the abstention from meat, fish, eggs and dairy products, wine, and oil. In other words, only fruits, vegetables, bread, salt, and water were allowed to be consumed during this time period. Likewise, only one full meal was allowed to be consumed during the day. As time went on, allowances for one to two small snacks (collations) for laborers was added. This time of fasting was seen as an opportunity to cleanse oneself of attachments to food and drink, but also to reflect upon one’s own baptism and need for continual repentance.
Following the Second Vatican Council, the requirement to abstain from meat on Fridays, to only take one full meal during the season of Lent and other ascetical actions were lessened. (Please see the bottom of this reflection for the list of guidelines provided by the USCCB for days of fasting and abstinence in the Latin Catholic Church).
This lessening of expectations over time is not true for many of our Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters who still begin Lent with a three week period of gradually removing certain dietary items from their meals in preparation for the Lenten abstention from meat, fish, eggs and dairy products, added sugar products, chocolate, alcohol, and vegetable oils for the full duration of Lent (including Sundays).
The practice of truly abstaining from food such as Orthodox Christian or our pre-Vatican II predecessors would be a very difficult task for me. It would make me uncomfortable, and mindful of my attachment to my favorite foods and beverages, and other things of this world. Our goal for Lent should be to replicate that experience today- seeking to make ourselves uncomfortable, and mindful of the need for conversion, and God’s help. This will make for a truly radical and transformative Lent.
If we choose to give up a certain food or drink during Lent, our call is to pray for God’s assistance when our stomach growls, or eyes see a desirable treat in front of us. We should pray for God’s help in growing more detached from physical goods so that we might be able to live a simpler life, one more dependent upon Him, and His generosity. As well it is a reminder to pray for those whom a meager diet like this is not a seasonal thing, but an everyday reality.
To assist us in better using Lent as a period of cleansing in anticipation of Easter, the Church calls her members to live out the prophetic call to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving during the season of Lent.
How can we best embrace one or more of these facets?
Some questions to consider when planning out your Lenten practices:
- What is it that you need to do in your life to grow in your awareness of your attachments to this world?
- What are those things that distract you from being present to God and your neighbor?
- What practices or actions should you undertake to better center yourself on what is truly important?
This Lent, Perhaps Consider Committing To:
Fasting: Don’t just give up candy, or junk food, but instead consider:
- Fast from distractions use your phone or other electronic device less, and instead use that time:
- for prayer
- Chatting with a relative, or other loved one.
- Visiting an elderly neighbor to talk or help with chores.
- Educate yourself about the challenges that many face across the globe:
- Learn about the plight of Christians in Nigeria, Myanmar, Central America, China, and the Middle East.
- Become aware of the challenges that refugees face throughout the world.
- Learn more about the reality of hunger for many children throughout the world and in the US.
- Fast from luxury goods: Don’t purchase fancy coffee drinks, or fast food once a week, and donate the money to a cause that is important to you.
- Support Catholic Relief Services Rice Bowl campaign.
- Fasting from sleeping in: Don’t snooze your alarm clock for the season of Lent, and use this time to say some prayers for your loved ones, or do chores/kind acts for those you live with..
- Fast from harsh words: Get off social media, or make the choice not to respond to the hurtful comments someone may have said to you, or wrote about you on social media, but instead offer a prayer for them.
- Fast from apathy and complaining: Pick up trash that you might see around you, instead of walking by it, or do those little things that need to be done instead of complaining.
- Fast from griping about those things outside your control: Don’t complain about what is wrong with the world, but instead give thanks for what is going well, and seek to encounter others with gratitude for those little things they do to help you. As well, offer your complaints as a prayer of supplication to God.