House For Six

Lent: 40 days of sacrifice or suffering?

Deme CrinionComment
I probably should have written about Lenten disciplines at the beginning of Lent when we were still trying to figure what to give up or take on for 40 days.  Since I'm more than a day late and a dollar short, let's get a status check instead. 

How are you doing with your Lenten sacrifice? 

A recent conversation with a friend made me think about the purpose of our Lenten sacrifice and how we chose it.  She had given up a drink that she loved and consumed often.  She was a week into Lent....and barely hanging on. (I asked her permission to share :)).

So, we talked about why she had chosen this particular sacrifice for Lent.  The simple answer was that she just knew it would be a hard thing to do. 

The next question was an important key - how was this sacrifice drawing her closer to Christ?  It wasn't. So where do we go if we find ourselves in this place?

Let's start by building our understanding of Lenten sacrifices/disciplines.

The 40 days of Lent begin with Ash Wednesday (well, technically, it's 47 days from Ash Wed to Easter Sunday, but Sundays are not "counted" in tally).  40 days to mimic the 40 days that Jesus spent fasting, praying and being tempted by Satan in the desert (immediately after he was baptized by John in the Jordan). 

In Luke we read that Jesus was lead by the Holy Spirit to the desert (Luke 4:1).  It was God that lead him to the barrenness for a period of fasting, praying and eventually temptation. 

So, as we enter this Lenten period of fasting and praying we also should look to the Holy Spirit to lead us to those things we need to "fast" from and to help us choose our Lenten discipline. 

In the past, self-imposed disciplines during Lent almost always involved giving something up in a spirit of penance (in addition to days of abstinence on Fridays and days of fasting/abstinence on Ash Wed and Good Friday). 

But in recent years, more specifically after the second Vatican Council, the faithful have been encouraged to also consider taking on something for 40 days as a form of Lenten sacrifice....commitments to prayer, reading, serving the poor or the community, or simply spending more time with Jesus.  Although they are things we "take on", each of those things still requires a sacrifice - the sacrifice of our time. 

If we are adding something into our day, then something usually has to go to make room it.  If we are getting up early to spend time on our knees, we sacrifice a little extra sleep or the luxury of taking our time waking up...if we are committing to spending more time reading the Word of God or Church documents, we may sacrifice one of our guilty pleasure shows on TV for silence...and if we take on a Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament, we may sacrifice time for ourselves in the evening.

Whether giving something up as a sacrifice or making a commitment to something new, both require discipline. 

When we choose our personal Lenten discipline, we need to think and pray about what will truly help us enter into the spirit of the Lenten season:  prayer/fasting/almsgiving/repentance/ order to grow closer to Christ.  

Some people knock those who give up soda or chocolate for Lent, but if we have lost self-control in regards to certain food or drink (or all food and drink!), then this would be an appropriate sacrifice.  If we have let the busyness of life replace our time with God, then carving out a specific time for prayer or reading to help us grow in faith may be the right discipline. If social media/TV/etc have become a big time waster for us, then perhaps limiting our time with our gadgets is prudent.  If we have lost control over our personal spending, then maybe a 40 day spending freeze is in order. 

The answers to the following questions are where we should focus our Lenten discipline:  What 'gods' have we allowed to take the priority over God in our lives?  What would we rather do than spend time with/for God?

Going back to my friend's example...she chose to give up a drink she really likes knowing that it would simply be hard to say no to it...but it was becoming more about failure and frustration than about growth in her relationship with Christ.  She could have stuck it out and used those moments to turn to prayer, but since this was towards the beginning of Lent, she decided to alter her Lenten commitment - instead of completely cutting out her favorite drink, she decided to limit her regular intake; but she also committed to spend the time on her morning drive to work in prayer, instead of listening to her favorite daily morning show on the radio. 

Now, whatever we choose to do for Lent may indeed be hard.  And difficulty in keeping our commitment to a Lenten promise is not a reason to choose something else.  In fact, whenever we do feel the pain, the hunger,and the sting of our sacrifice, we should use that moment to move our hearts to prayer, surrender and remembrance of Christ's own suffering out of love on our behalf.  However, suffering (though potentially a by-product of our Lenten commitment) should not be its purpose.  Growth in grace, holiness, and Christ should be our goal. 

Christ was baptized by John, immediately led to desert, and after those 40 days, he "returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit" (Luke 4:14) and began his ministry on earth.  

If we allow the Holy Spirit to lead us through the desert of Lent, then we'll be ready to go forward, renewed by the same Spirit, so that we can bring Christ's love to the world.