At the beginning of his public life, just after his baptism by Saint John the Baptist, Our Divine Lord withdrew into the desert and there remained in prayer and fasting for forty days. That is the origin of the holy season of Lent which Catholics have observed since the earliest days of the Church. Some people complained that Jesus was not requiring his disciples to fast as rigorously as some of the devout people among the Jews. In his answer, he did not deny or question the value of fasting, but said that he and his disciples will not be obliged to observe the old law—the law of Moses—in terms of fasting, but will have their own regulations about fasting. This makes it clear that Our Lord does not intend to oblige his followers to follow the old law of Moses, but rather that he is the new lawgiver in this new covenant that he was ushering in. Nonetheless, the practice of fasting is a solid one in both the old and new testaments.
One of the sad things that every confessor experiences is that when some people come to confession during Holy Week just before Easter, they must confess that they have done nothing in particular to observe the holy season of Lent. Therefore, for them, Lent was just a waste of time and a sad neglect of a precious opportunity for spiritual growth.
Let me ask you here and now: if you have not done so already, decide what you will do to observe Lent with special devotion. There are the three classic means of sanctification: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These are three broad categories in which there are many activities. Prayer can mean attending Mass, praying the Rosary, making the Way of the Cross, reading Scripture or the life of a saint or the catechism, or simply sitting or kneeling quietly for a few minutes, talking to God in the familiarity and the intimacy of our own hearts.
Fasting encompasses all sorts of physical self-denials. No food or drink, or both, between meals. Giving up some favorite food or drink. No beer, wine, or cocktails; no coffee; no dessert after dinner; no snack food while watching television. Or: no television, except perhaps for the news and the weather. I once heard of someone who deliberately waited for one day before opening the mail and allowing the unopened envelope to sit on his desk unread for twenty-four hours. He enjoyed receiving mail, at least personal mail, and the wait was a real penance.
Almsgiving includes every form of kindness or helpfulness to others. It can take the form of giving money to worthy causes that help others, but it can also be a phone call to someone who is house-bound and lonely; a letter or a note to someone who would like to hear from you. The offer to take someone for a ride who doesn’t get out very much; the offer to baby-sit for a young mother while she goes shopping or runs other errands. Just a little inventiveness can come up with all sorts of ways of being helpful and kind to others. These are all particularly appropriate during Lent.
Above all, decide what you are going to do and then DO IT during Lent! It doesn’t have to be terribly difficult or heroic. Little things done with love are very precious in the sight of God. But to allow Lent to go by without doing anything special is lazy, irresponsible, and a great waste. Thank you for seeking God’s truth, God Bless you. Father Victor Brown, O.P.
Note: This message was composed some years ago.