Tomorrow many Catholics and other Christians will head to church to receive the sign of the cross marked in black ash on their foreheads. This marks the beginning of Lent, a season of penance before the glory of Easter. Indeed, the ashes themselves come from the burnt palms of last Easter. They symbolize penance and mortality. As the priest reminds us when he applies them, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Sounds harsh?
Not at all. It is full of wonder and awe. God created us and our bodies will die, but that’s not the end of the story. Our souls are eternal but our bodies will be resurrected and renewed in a glorious form, just like that of Jesus. We live Lent well to prepare for that Easter resurrection.
How do we live Lent well? Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Most people are familiar with the fasting part as in “what are you giving up for Lent?” But Lent is not only above refraining from some comfort or pleasure. It is about forming a good habit that you may continue after Lent. The element of prayer is the clearest example of how this works. One might adopt a practice of getting on your knees first thing in the morning to thank God for the day and offer it to Him. Or, if you already do this, you might add a dedicated fifteen minutes of quiet prayer that you schedule into your calendar — an appointment with Jesus. After engaging in these practices for the forty days of Lent, it is easier to keep praying as part of everyday life.
Fasting builds self-control. We don’t fast from something that we shouldn’t be doing at all, like overeating or gossip. The idea is to fast during Lent from something you can resume after Lent because it is intrinsically good, but only in moderation. Thus, the lasting benefit is that you control it; it does not control you or, in the extreme, become an idol. So, giving up chocolate or movies or beer may help you find that you can master cravings, not be mastered by them. Butter on bread or milk in coffee are other good examples, as is sleeping with a pillow. Of course, fasting is meant to mortify you, not mortify the people around you. If you need to sleep with a pillow to avoid snoring loudly, or must have your morning coffee to safely drive to work, you may not want to choose these for your fast.
The benefit of exercising self-control temporarily over some pleasure or comfort that is itself good in moderation is you can then apply that self-control to things you renounce permanently. Gossip or cursing at other drivers in traffic come to mind. By building up your self-control muscles through mortification — denying yourself something good — you acquire strength to help resist sin. Fasting, like prayer, leads to growth in holiness.
Finally, almsgiving is more than giving money. It can be time, talent, and treasure. For instance, volunteer to make sandwiches for the homeless or help seniors with their taxes. Perhaps resolve to smile at others more and strike up an encouraging conversation with a stranger each day. You may also want to combine your almsgiving with your fasting: if you give up dessert or meat for Lent, you can take the money you save and give it to the poor. This is not to discourage you from giving money to worthy causes. Instead, these suggestions may remind you that even if your own resources are stretched thin, there are ways to give alms other than money.
The lasting benefit of Lenten almsgiving is you may realize you can continue to support a particular charity or engage in a particular charitable service beyond Lent. You discover a new way to follow Christ more closely.
Lent as penance is mortification, a purification that we undertake to grow in holiness. We sometimes experience involuntary mortification, such as an illness that we bear with Jesus when we offer our pain to Him. This may be called “offering it up” or “laying it at the foot of the cross.” But Lenten mortification is something voluntary — something extra. We choose to enter into it, pass through it, and come out transformed, refined, made holy.
That is not to ignore the mandatory penances of Lent. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, we may consume only one full meal and two smaller ones that together do not make up a full meal (for ages 14-59, unless exempt for health or necessary work reasons). Plus, on both those days and all Fridays in Lent we abstain from consuming meat (for age 14 or older). But these are the bare minimum requirements; embracing prayer, more fasting, and almsgiving make Lent transformative.
Let us enter into that season of Lent then with hope and gratitude that we can accompany Christ and other Christians in their mortifications, joining ours to theirs, as we all travel to Easter.