Lent is the forty day period before Easter, excluding Sundays, which begins on Ash Wednesday (February 13th) and ends on Holy Saturday (March 30th), the day before Easter Sunday . The three penitential practices of our Christian tradition during this time of Lent are: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. To help you better prepare for Lent, we encourage all parishioners to read Pope Benedict XVI’s 2013 Lenten Message entitled Believing in Charity Calls Forth Charity: ‘We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us’.
In his Lenten message, Pope Benedict XVI presents a meditation on the relationship between faith and charity. By believing in God and His love for us, guided by the Holy Spirit, we extend this love to others. Pope Benedict XVI states, “Lent invites us, through the traditional practices of the Christian life, to nourish our faith by careful and extended listening to the word of God and by receiving the sacraments, and at the same time to grow in charity and in love for God and neighbour, not least through the specific practices of fasting, penance and almsgiving.” (3) To help clarify and make the Lenten Message better understood, Pope Benedict has segmented it into four sections: 1. Faith as a response to the love of God, 2. Charity as life in faith, 3. The indissoluble interrelation of faith an charity and 4. Priority of faith, primacy of charity.
The use of ashes, an ancient symbol of repentance, has been adopted by the Church for the Ash Wednesday liturgies (Mass). The ashes used are made by the burning of the previous year’s blessed palms. Ashes are a reminder of our mortality, “Then the Lord God formed man out of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being” (Gen 2:7). Our bodies were made from nothing and will return to nothing when we die.
On Ash Wednesday, we approach the priest and he makes a sign of the cross with ashes on our foreheads, saying the words, “Remember, man, you are dust, and unto dust you shall return” or “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” The ash marks on our foreheads indicate our recognition of the need for deeper a conversion of our lives. It is a symbol of penance and sorrow for our sins.
SACRAMENT OF PENANCE OR RECONCILIATION
As Lent is a call to a deeper conversion, a closer following of Christ, it is also a call for the faithful to frequently receive the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation. The Sacrament of Penance is for those Catholics who have already been baptized. Those who are in the process of officially being welcomed into the Catholic faith deal with sin through the celebration of rites called Scrutinies.
Grace has been given to us abundantly in the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, but our human weakness leads us to sin resulting in our need to confess our sins. It is during confession that Jesus grants us pardon, mercy and heals our souls.
Although the Sacrament of Penance is necessary only for the remission of mortal sins, the Church has always recommended and praised the frequent use of this sacrament even if it were to confess only venial sins. Frequent confession has always been considered, in authentic Catholic tradition, as a school of perfection, an effective way to correct faults and evil tendencies and to advance in virtue. Pope Pius XII states in his encyclical, Mystici Corporis Christi,
But to ensure more rapid progress day by day in the path of virtue, We will that the pious practice of frequent confession, which was introduced into the Church by the inspiration of the Holy spirit, should be earnestly advocated. By it genuine self-knowledge is increased, Christian humility grows, bad habits are corrected, spiritual neglect and tepidity are resisted, the conscience is purified, the will strengthened, a salutary self-control is attained, and grace is increased in virtue of the Sacrament itself… (88)
There is no better medicine for the ills and wounds of the soul than frequent confession. When one approaches confession with humility and sincerity in disclosing one’s sins, seeing Jesus Christ in the person of the confessor, accompanied by a true and strong resolve to repent and turn away from sin, this sacrament becomes most efficacious. Not only will one be absolved, but one will receive “sacramental grace,” which assures one of divine assistance in correcting one’s weak points, overcoming temptations and surmounting the particular difficulties one encounters in the practice of virtue.
PRAYER, FASTING AND ALMSGIVING
Prayer is direct communication with God. It is during Lent that we should endeavor to increase our connection with God by more prayer. Particular to Lent, our prayer intentions might be for the elect who will be baptized at Easter, to help support their conversion. We might also pray for those who will receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation that they will truly be renewed in their baptismal commitment.
What ever our intentions may be, it is important before entering prayer to, as much as possible, withdraw from the earthly occupations and concerns, and direct our hearts and minds to God. Finding a location to help accommodate this is important, but as Jesus said, even more important is the interior spirit with which we pray, “…for from it alone can flow the true adoration of God, who is spirit and truth.” An interior recollection must accompany our prayer.
The Catholic Code of Canon Law requires those 18 to 59 years of age to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fasting means partaking of only one full meal, with snacks or smaller meals allowed at two other times through the day. It is also recommended that those 14 and over abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and every Friday during Lent.
Although fasting is primarily abstinence from food, it can extend to other things such as television, the internet, or some type of activity that one would forgo and be considered a sacrifice, with the purpose of giving more time to God. Fasting is more than a means of developing self control, it is an aid to prayer as the pangs of hunger remind us of our hunger for God.
Another important dimension of fasting as the prophet Isaiah points out, fasting without changing behavior is not pleasing to God, “This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own” (Is 58:6-7). Our fasting should be linked to our concern for the less fortunate, those whose poverty forces them to fast, for those who suffer due to political and economic injustices and for those who are in need for any reason.
Pope Benedict XVI in his 2009 Lenten Message further emphasizes the importance our behavior during Lenten fasting in referring to the New Testament that, “Jesus brings to light the profound motive for fasting, condemning the attitude of the Pharisees, who scrupulously observed the prescriptions of the law, but whose hearts were far from God. True fasting, as the divine Master repeats elsewhere, is rather to do the will of the Heavenly Father, who “sees in secret, and will reward you” (Mt 6,18). Pope Benedict XVI concludes that the ultimate goal of fasting is to help each one of us, quoting Blessed Pope John Paul II from his encyclical, Veritatis splendor “to make the complete gift of self to God.” (21)
Those who are excused from fasting are those who are: outside the age limits, those of unsound minds, the sick and frail, pregnant or nursing women, manual laborers, and those who are confronted with certain situations of moral or physical impossibility to observe the penitential discipline.
Almsgiving is a sign of our care for those in need and an expression of gratitude for all that God has given us. Works of charity and the promotion of justice are integral elements of the Christian way of life and Lent affords us an opportunity to increase our charity by our acts of almsgiving. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “…giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses of fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God.” (2447)