Lent is a penitential season, a time to “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). The season lasts for 40 days, the same amount of time Jesus spent in prayer and fasting in the desert.
The liturgical color is violet or purple, the symbol of repentance and sorrow for sin. Sin is real and, over the course of the year, spiritual slippage normally occurs. Our sins can become more frequent or grow more serious. Lent is a time to re-examine our lives, acknowledge how we have offended God and neighbor, admit our failings, seek God’s forgiveness, receive God’s healing grace, reform our lives, conform ourselves to God’s will and make headway in virtue and holiness.
One way to make a good Lent is to observe the two Lenten regulations: abstinence and fasting.
The abstinence regulation requires all those who have reached their 14th birthday to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all of the Fridays of Lent.
The fasting regulation applies from one’s 18th to 59th birthday. All those in this age range are to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fasting means one full meal and two smaller meals that together do not equal the larger one, with no food between meals except beverages. This obligation does not apply to those with special health conditions or physically demanding work. Those in doubt should consult a priest or confessor.
Another way to make a good Lent is to observe the four penitential or ascetical practices: prayer, fasting, almsgiving and works of charity.
Prayer is at the top of the list. Lent offers an opportunity to intensify prayer, to pray more, or better or with a richer variety. There are two main types of prayer: communal-liturgical and individual-private, and both are necessary for a well-balanced prayer life.
Regular communication is key to every quality relationship, and if we hope to be close to God, regular prayer is a must.
» Communal prayer
The cornerstone of communal prayer is the Sunday Mass, and it is the indispensible starting point, whether in Lent or any time of the year.
To have a good Lent, consider adding something to your communal prayer. The highest-rated option is daily Mass, one or two times a week, or possibly every weekday. Parishes offer a variety of other options: the communal recitation of Morning or Evening Prayer, the rosary, the Stations of the Cross or a parish retreat or mission.
At home, the family can offer prayers together at mealtime, bedtime or any other time when two or more pray together.
» Individual prayer
Jesus frequently went off to pray by himself, and so should we. There are many options: eucharistic adoration; Scripture reading and reflection; a silent or directed retreat, contemplation and meditation; the rosary, the chaplet, litanies, and prayer books; spiritual reading such as the writings or lives of the saints; a prayer journal; singing along with sacred music in the car; or a solitary prayer walk outside.
Fasting is a form of self-denial, one of the most traditional forms of penance. In some circles it is not fashionable to give something up for Lent, with the objection that it is “too negative”; however, self-denial is the path to self-mastery. If we want to have a good Lent, it would be worthwhile to give up some non-essential pleasure like dessert, candy, pop, ice cream, alcohol, tobacco or television for a day or the week.
The foremost form of self-denial is fasting from food, and Jesus demonstrated its importance when he fasted 40 days and nights in the desert (Matthew 4:2), and he presumed that his disciples would do the same (Matthew 6:16,17).
When hunger pangs come, it takes determination to say, “No!” and if we can consistently say “no” to something small like food, with improved self-control it is much more likely that we will be able to say “no” when something bigger like temptation comes our way.
Almsgiving is not the same as stewardship of treasure or sacrificial giving, money shared to support the ministries of the parish and the wider church. Almsgiving is giving over-and-above what is given to the church: money, food or clothing, goods or services that are shared to help the poor and needy.
Almsgiving is penitential, as Scripture says: “Prayer and fasting are good, but better than either is almsgiving accompanied by righteousness” (Tobit 12:8); “Almsgiving expiates every sin” (Tobit 12:9); and “Atone for your misdeeds by kindness to the poor” (Daniel 4:24).
A fine way to make a good Lent would be to make special donations to disaster relief, a food shelf, a soup kitchen, an orphanage or some other charitable agency that cares for the poor or troubled.
Kind deeds are also penitential, because “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Plan to do something thoughtful for someone: extend thanks, offer a compliment, fulfill a promise, listen attentively, run an errand, help with a job, make a phone call, send flowers or a card, be polite, tell a clean joke or visit someone in a hospital or nursing home.
Random acts of kindness are good, but planned ones are better. Acts of love toward a neighbor draw a person away from selfish preoccupation and closer to God.
Making a plan
Lent is a time to break sinful habits that have not received the remedial attention they deserve, implement spiritual upgrades that have been put off for a long time, and break out of a spiritual holding pattern.
Our plan for Lent should be to “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).
Father Van Sloun is pastor at St. Stephen in Anoka.