On Ash Wednesday, March 9, the Church begins her great Lenten journey with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. Lent invites us to turn from our own selves, from our sin, to come together in community. Self-denial is the way we express our repentance. Self-denial is threefold,
advises Matthew’s Gospel. We pray: “Go to your room, close your door, and pray to your Father in private.” We fast: “No one must see you are fasting but your Father.” We give alms: “Keep your deeds of mercy secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” Through the Lenten exercise of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we spring-clean our lives, sharpen our senses, put tomorrow in its place and treasure the day at hand.
Lent is a time for us to discover the reasons for the pious practices, disciplines and devotions of our Catholic Christian tradition. What have we done with the important Lenten practice of fasting? If Jesus were here to speak to disciples of today, what would he stress most? We regard as more important the need to "share bread with the hungry and clothe the naked"; we are in fact ashamed to call ours a "fast," when what would be for us the height of austerity – to be on bread and water – for millions of people would already be an extraordinary luxury, especially if it is fresh bread and clean water.
Fasting helps us not to be reduced to pure "consumers"; it helps us to acquire the precious "fruit of the Spirit," which is "self-control," it predisposes us to the encounter with God. We must empty ourselves in order to be filled by God. Fasting creates authentic solidarity with millions of hungry people throughout the world. But we must not forget that there are alternative forms of fasting and abstinence from food. We can practice fasting from smoking and drinking. This not only benefits the soul but also the body.
There is fasting from violent and sexual pictures that television, movies, magazines and Internet bombard us with daily as they distort human dignity. There is the fasting from condemning and dismissing others -- a practice so prevalent in today’s Church.
“For now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation!” We need Lent to help us recognize that our identity and mission are rooted in Jesus’ dying and rising. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the pillars of the Lenten journey for Christians. Lent is a time to fast from certain things and but also a time to feast on others. Fast from discontent, anger, bitterness, self-concern, discouragement, laziness, suspicion, guilt. Feast on gratitude, patience, forgiveness, compassion for others, hope, commitment, truth, and the mercy of God. Lent is just such a time of fasting and feasting!
In his 2011 Lenten Message
, Pope Benedict writes in #3:
Through the traditional practices of fasting, almsgiving and prayer, which are an expression of our commitment to conversion, Lent teaches us how to live the love of Christ in an ever more radical way. Fasting, which can have various motivations, takes on a profoundly religious significance for the Christian: by rendering our table poorer, we learn to overcome selfishness in order to live in the logic of gift and love; by bearing some form of deprivation – and not just what is in excess – we learn to look away from our "ego", to discover Someone close to us and to recognize God in the face of so many brothers and sisters. For Christians, fasting, far from being depressing, opens us ever more to God and to the needs of others, thus allowing love of God to become also love of our neighbor (cf. Mk 12: 31).
In our journey, we are often faced with the temptation of accumulating and love of money that undermine God's primacy in our lives. The greed of possession leads to violence, exploitation and death; for this, the Church, especially during the Lenten period, reminds us to practice almsgiving – which is the capacity to share. The idolatry of goods, on the other hand, not only causes us to drift away from others, but divests man, making him unhappy, deceiving him, deluding him without fulfilling its promises, since it puts materialistic goods in the place of God, the only source of life. How can we understand God's paternal goodness, if our heart is full of egoism and our own projects, deceiving us that our future is guaranteed? The temptation is to think, just like the rich man in the parable: "My soul, you have plenty of good things laid by for many years to come…". We are all aware of the Lord's judgment: "Fool! This very night the demand will be made for your soul…" (Lk 12: 19-20). The practice of almsgiving is a reminder of God's primacy and turns our attention towards others, so that we may rediscover how good our Father is, and receive his mercy.
…In synthesis, the Lenten journey, in which we are invited to contemplate the Mystery of the Cross, is meant to reproduce within us "the pattern of his death" (Ph 3:10), so as to effect a deep conversion in our lives; that we may be transformed by the action of the Holy Spirit, like St. Paul on the road to Damascus; that we may firmly orient our existence according to the will of God; that we may be freed of our egoism, overcoming the instinct to dominate others and opening us to the love of Christ. The Lenten period is a favorable time to recognize our weakness and to accept, through a sincere inventory of our life, the renewing Grace of the Sacrament of Penance, and walk resolutely towards Christ.
May you have a blessed Lent of feasting and fasting this year. Stay tuned to Salt + Light for excellent Lenten programming that will prepare you for Holy Week and Easter! Our Lenten Papal coverage
begins at 10:30am ET/7:30am PT on Wednesday with a live presentation of Pope Benedict's penitential procession from the Basilica of St. Anselm, followed by Ash Wednesday Mass and the Imposition of Ashes from the Basilica of St. Sabina.
Yours in Christ,
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB,
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation
CNS photo/Owen Sweeney III, Catholic Review; CNS illustration/Emily Thompson