For some, Lent seems like a huge, oppressive, onerous time of the year. For others, it doesn’t seem like a big deal and just seems like a couple of hoops to jump through.
I hope neither case is true for you.
I think the extremes in one’s attitude toward Lent come from a misunderstanding of what the season is about.
Lent is supposed to revolve around three things: remembering the poor, atoning for sin, and preparing to celebrate Easter fully and properly.
The Church gives us three ways to accomplish these goals: Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving. A healthy and appropriate “celebration” of Lent involves doing something for each of the three Lenten practices — not a “pick one” (prayer, fasting or almsgiving), but more like: pick one practice from each category (yes, there are things that cover more than one category, and those practices are just fine).
Thus, a good celebration of Lent involves some additional prayer, some fasting from something good, and some assistance offered to the poor.
The difficulties in Lenten observances usually come from picking practices that are more focused on ourselves than on the three goals. New Year’s resolutions are usually about improving oneself. Lenten resolutions are about the poor, sin and Easter.
Thus “fasting” from something one shouldn’t be doing anyway doesn’t really help us accomplish the objectives the Church puts forward for Lent.
The expectation is that one fasts or abstains from something good as a reminder that others in the world are going without (the poor) and as a sign that one is trying to move away from sin.
Another problem with Lenten devotions is that some people try to do too much and some people do too little. A good rule of thumb is: If your Lenten practices are really easy for you, then you are probably not attempting enough, and if your practices seem really hard, then you are probably trying to do too much.
Remember, we do not save ourselves — Jesus does that, so we don’t (and can’t) do enough to earn heaven. So, do enough that you are remembering those that go without, that reminds you to be sorry for sin, and helps you prepare to celebrate Easter in a big way.
Fr. Smith is pastor of St. Peter parish in Marshall and the Holy Family mission in Sweet Springs.