Lent is considered a “penitential time” within the Church. Penitential days are every Friday of the year and the entire season of Lent (see Canon 1250 of the Code of Canon Law). We observe Fridays as days of penance in memory of the passion and death of the Lord — the act of our salvation. The U.S. bishops have strongly urged that Catholics abstain from eating meat on every Friday of the year, along with prayer and self-denial, for the sake of world peace (see the 1983 pastoral statement “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response”). The liturgical season of Lent signifies our path of conversion and promotes our continuing walk along that path. The three traditional pillars of Lenten discipline — prayer, fasting, almsgiving — help to reinforce our conversion to Christ and our dependence on God’s grace.
Each of the three touches upon an element of life that is important to us as human beings: our use of time, our use of material resources, and our attention to our own selves and needs. The disciplines of Lent help us to remember that all of these things have their origin in God’s gracious love, and all are given to us for service to that love.
The Church obligates Catholics to certain minimal requirements during Lent as a means of guiding us along the path of conversion. People 14 years of age or older are bound to abstain from meat on all Fridays of Lent, and those from ages 18 to 59 are bound to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fasting means partaking in no more than one full meal and two light meals as needed to maintain health or strength. Consumption of solid foods between meals is prohibited, but liquids may be consumed at any time (see the Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini, on fast and abstinence, by Pope Paul VI). Of course, individuals with medical conditions prohibiting these dietary restrictions are not bound by them, but are asked to substitute other penitential practices. There is no Church requirement to “give up” anything other than what is described as fast and abstinence, but it has become part of the culture of Lent for many Catholics.
In “giving up” something during Lent, whether that something is food or drink, a form of entertainment or something else pleasurable to us, we turn away from our selfishness and recognize that God alone will ultimately satisfy our needs and wants and cravings. For the briefest of time — just 40 days — we acknowledge that we do not and cannot fully provide for ourselves. Everything comes from God.
Along with Jesus in the desert, we acknowledge in the face of temptation that we do not “live by bread alone, / but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4). As Jesus found strength and virtue in facing temptation in the desert, so the disciplines of Lent aid us in strengthening our will and our ability to say no to sin.
St. Augustine famously prayed, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You” (“Confessions”). By giving up something during Lent we face our inner restlessness by removing the things or actions we often use to cover up our neediness and give us comfort. We acknowledge that only God will ultimately satisfy us in both body and soul, and at least for 40 days we can place our hope in God alone, trusting that our wants and dreams will be fulfilled in heaven by the providence of God.
At the end of our lives we will leave the gifts of time, treasure and our bodies in the grave until the Resurrection. Lent affords us the opportunity and challenge to live now as children of our heavenly Father, reliant on His grace and providence and eager to find our hopes fulfilled in God alone.
Msgr. William J. King is a priest of the Diocese of Harrisburg.