By the time you read this article, the Lenten season may be at its midpoint and many of us have forgotten, neglected, or given up most of our Lenten promises. Here we should be asking ourselves an important question: why? Is it because we always overpromise and underdeliver? Is it because of our hectic lifestyles that make it impossible to keep a commitment? Or is it because of a situation unique to each of us? I personally think the problem is not due to a circumstance or a lifestyle as much as it is with our inability to see the bigger picture.
Lent for many of us is a time of the year when we give up certain types of foods or habits to please God and continue a tradition we inherited from our parents. We start off the season with some enthusiasm but as time goes on, our commitment level weakens and we start looking for loopholes around the system. Chewing sugarless gum for those who give up sweets, eating Masgoof for those who give up meats, and shopping online instead of going to the mall are some examples of this weakened commitment. These examples may seem funny and innocent, which they are, but they reflect a somber reality that we may not want to admit. The reality is that we do not understand the true meaning of Lent.
Let us first start with the basics. Lent is a special season on the church’s calendar that intends to prepare the faithful for the great feast of Easter. Traditionally, the Church has focused on three main elements, rooted in sacred scripture, that would help us live this season properly: prayers, fasting, and almsgiving.
The Gospel according to Matthew (Mt 6:1-18) highlights these three practices and offers us small tips as to how we should carry them on in our daily lives. When it comes to almsgiving, the Bible encourages us to be humble and not to blow a trumpet before every act of giving. Jesus says, “When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” (Mt 6:3).
Regarding prayers, scripture encourages us not to be hypocrites, meaning to be genuine in our intentions and conversations with God. Good prayers are not conditioned by length or place. Jesus says, “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” (Mt 6:6).
Finally, regarding fasting, the Bible encourages us not to look gloomy. This means not to use this practice as a means to show the entire world a willingness to be depressed for the sake of God. Jesus on the contrary says, “When you fast anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden, and your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.” (Mt 6:6). These three practices are foundational to the season of Lent, and yet they are still considered to be the small picture of what Lent encompasses.
The bigger picture requires an understanding of Lent as a special time where we grow in our love with God through a sacrificial life. The concept of sacrifice is foundational in Christianity. God chose to show his love for us through sacrificing Himself on the cross to pay the price for our sins. Though this sacrifice is sufficient, God gives us the opportunity to show our love to Him through sacrifices as well. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothermen, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as living sacrifices holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). Love and sacrifice are two sides to one coin. There is no true love without sacrifices. The season of Lent help us assess our true love to God and grow it. Lent is a time when we take inventory of our spiritual lives. The sacrifices of almsgiving and fasting help us to detach ourselves from all that is hindering our relationship with God. It is a process of emptying oneself from the “I” and filling it with God through prayers.
In summary, we can say that Lent is not a period of time when Christians have to deprive themselves of all their desires as much as it is a time of reconsidering our relationships with God, making decisions to enhance it, and vowing to live the remaining time of the year according to that promise. I, myself, have experienced that firsthand. Most of my daily religious habits such as Scripture readings, daily mass, rosary and other started on a Lenten journey some year in the past. Today, I can’t imagine my life without these daily religious routines.
Karam Bahnam has a BA in Philosophy and is currently working on his MA in Theology; he is a co-founder of the Eastern Catholic Re-evangelization Center (ECRC).