It’s a common question: Why would you want to give something up for Lent when you could do something positive instead? After all, shouldn’t Lent be a time of self-improvement? Shouldn’t we pray more? Give more away? Be kinder, more patient, and more willing to forgive? Yes! Yes! and Yes! We should absolutely do all those things. But, giving something up for Lent still matters.
The three traditional pillars of Lenten observance are prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. The three are intimately interconnected and all help us become more loving.
Prayer is conversation with God. It draws us into deeper relationship with God, and by extension, our neighbor. It allows us to focus on what matters, what God wants us to do, and to live a life of Christian love.
Almsgiving calls us to be generous – to help those in need. It invites us to live with less and give out of love. What do we need? What can we live without? What are we attached to that could better be used by someone else?
Which brings us to fasting. Traditionally, fasting meant having only water or, perhaps, bread and water. While some still practice such an extreme fast, the term has a looser interpretation today. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday those between the ages of 18 and 59 who are physically able to fast are asked to eat only one full meal and two smaller meals with no eating between meals.
What we tend to refer to as “fasting” from something in particular is more accurately termed “abstaining.” On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and all Fridays of Lent, Catholics over the age of 14 should abstain from meat.
Nevertheless, whether you call it “fasting” or “abstaining,” giving something up you enjoy during the Lenten season has value. If you give up a specific food, the money you save not buying that food can be given to charity. If you give up an entertainment (television, computer, etc), you can use the time you save more wisely. You can spend it in quality time with your family or other people. Either way, your fasting directly leads to a greater love of neighbor.
In addition, giving something up helps build spiritual character. Making sacrifices is hard. There are many times in life when we have to do things and avoid things we may not want to. Deliberately avoiding something for a greater purpose helps us develop discipline and mastery over our bodies and desires. While it might not make it easy to make those bigger sacrifices; it does help make it easier. Self-control in small things leads to self-control in larger things. This also helps us live a life more fully centered on love.
This holy season, embrace the three aspects of Lenten observance. Pray, give generously, and sacrifice. By the time Easter comes, you will have become a better, more loving, person as a result.