Happy Lent to all! In the past I wrote a bit about the why of Lent with a focus on why we do penance. You can read that post here. This year I would like to look at Prayer, Fasting, and Alms Giving. Every year we here and discuss how this liturgical season is a time specially dedicated to these tasks. But how do we understand them, and why do we place a special focus on them this time of the year? The simple answer to why we focus on them now is to prepare to enter more fully into the paschal mysteries during the Triduum 1 , and ultimately participate more fully in Easter. This doesn’t quite answer why these three, or how these three practices do that.
First prayer. We are called to commit ourselves to prayer. This can mean working on improving the quality of our prayer and or increase the time of prayer. We can improve the quality of prayer by trying to be more focused and intentional with the prayer that we do. Practically, this can mean being more focused when we go to Mass on Sundays or keeping our mind from wandering when we pray on our own. We can also improve the quality of our prayer by learning about our faith and doing spiritual reading. These help us to enter more deeply into the prayer that we do. Once more, practically this can be learning about the Mass so we can more easily understand what is happening and pray about what is happening.
I’m using the Mass as an example because it is the source and summit of our faith, but also because it is a common form of prayer. But, this idea of improving prayer by study and intentionality applies to all prayer. Beyond improving the quality of prayer, you can try to pray more. That can mean something simple like praying the rosary everyday or reading scripture everyday. Or it can be a greater commitment like going to daily Mass or doing a holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament at least once a week.
Doing this helps to prepare you to enter into Easter, by leading you into a closer relationship with the Lord. Prayer is the place of intimate personal contact with the Divine. It is where the Lord speaks in our hearts, and where we get to know Him as He is. By getting to know Jesus better, and through spending time with Him, He can more easily lead us into participating in His Resurrection come Easter.
This is the first thing most people think of when they think of Lent. It is a time of fasting and penance, we give up something, and we don’t eat meat on Fridays. But what is fasting? Practically, fasting for Catholics is abstaining from meat and only eating one normal meal with two snacks that don’t quite add up to another meal. We only need to fast twice a year, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Every Friday of Lent we abstain from eating meat. This answers the question of how we fast, but not what fasting should accomplish, or why we fast. Fasting should lead us to greater conformity with Christ. To put that another way, we should love God and our neighbor more as a result of our fasting.
In the first reading from the Friday after Ash Wednesday Mass the prophet Isaiah speaks about this:
6 Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose:Is 58:6-9
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking off every yoke?
7 Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry,
bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own flesh?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
Your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer,
you shall cry for help, and he will say: “Here I am!”
This is the end, reason why we fast, but how does me not eating as much lead to me loving more? Two things should happen. The first I have to subdue my passions, my bodily desires, to my will and intellect. Fasting forces me to control my most basic desire and need to eat. And I have to do this in such away that I don’t lash out at others around, otherwise I have fasted for nothing. We need self-control, so that we can more freely love God and our neighbors, but more importantly to allow ourselves to be loved by God. The second effect of fasting is that we grow in understanding our dependency on God. By giving up things that are important to our lives (like food) we can more clearly see that it is God alone that sustains us. We can see that we don’t need so many things in the world.
Prayer and fasting leads into the third practice of Lent, alms giving. Having grown in greater love of God and neighbor through prayer and fasting, and in realizing how little we need through God’s support, we then turn to our neighbor to help them in practice. Everyone knows the CRS Rice-bowls, this is alms giving. But alms giving should be more than just dropping money in a box; which you should do, they help a lot of people. Trying to learn more about the people that the Rice-bowls help is a great next step. This helps us to love those who we are helping through our donations instead of them remaining anonymous people across the world.
Alms giving should also extend into your community. Helping the poor and needy that are your physical neighbors should be included. This can be simple things like aiding family, friends, coworkers, etc. even though it may be inconvenient. Or maybe it will be helping at a local food bank or soup kitchen. Or maybe it will be stopping to talk to that homeless person you pass on the street everyday. How we do this will be different for every person based on state in life, means, and location. But the principle is that we are being more conscientious of acting with love and compassion towards our neighbors, especially in their time of need.
This though answer the question of what or how. The reason why or end is because we are moved to act in love because of our prayer and fasting. But also, by acting charitable we actually grow in love towards our neighbor and God. In scripture we hear in Mt 25:40 that “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me“. Then in Heb 13:2 “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.” In serving the needy we serve our Lord and encounter Him in them.