Welcome to Lent. If you are like me, you have probably been hearing the question, “So, what are you giving up for Lent?” I hope to change that question with this post. The question I want to ask you is this: “What penance are you doing this Lent?”
Perhaps the difference isn’t all that great, or it resides too much in my memories of Lenten game-playing as a child. My brothers and I would try to give up something that sounded really impressive, but didn’t cost us very much. One of us might give up Coke, but we secretly preferred Dr. Pepper anyway. Or we would give up dessert (which really wasn’t served in our house in Lent anyway). Even as I got older, as I got more serious about giving something up, it was usually as much or more for other reasons than spiritual ones. I would give up chocolate or sweets or soda or alcohol more with the hope of losing a little weight than any real sort of sacrifice.
Lent is an opportunity to prepare for the paschal celebration by connecting ourselves as deeply as possible to the suffering and death of Christ, so that we may come to Easter ready to celebrate his resurrection, and the promise of our own. And, of course, as the Ash Wednesday liturgy reminds us (“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”), Lent is an opportunity to prepare for our own death, in the hope that we will rise in Christ. As Herbert McCabe, OP, put it, “The penances of Lent are a voluntary anticipation of death, performed for love of God, and as such they help to foster in us the life of love. Lent makes us love God more.”
It isn’t as though we need Lent to remind us of God’s love; it is that we need to practice penance to remember how deeply we stand in need of God’s love and mercy. We are surrounded by so many messages of the love and mercy of God, and of the dignity of the human person, made in God’s image. And I affirm each of those teachings. But they come together into a buzz of affirmation: “We’re all good people … every choice is valid … as long as you mean well … you did the best that you could ….” God knows we’re good people and we try pretty hard. God owes us a little forgiveness here and there when we slip up. But we are sinners, standing in need of a Savior, in need of penance, in need of conversion, in need of God’s gracious mercy.
That’s why, for me, at least, it’s important to change the question. I’m not giving up something for Lent like I should get some sort of extra credit on my are-you-a-good-Christian scorecard. I’m doing penance, like the sinner I am. It’s what is expected of each of us, because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. It’s what Lent asks of us, and the opportunity Lent offers to us.
The traditional penitential practices of Lent are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. So, of course, anything that you “give up for Lent” fits into the category of a fast. Fast from chocolate, if you want. Fast from swearing or alcohol. Fast from anything you want. But remember that its absence from the next 40 days of your life is a penance, an expression of your love of God, and of your need to be more focused on God than on yourself. So, too, when we add a new discipline of prayer (hopefully, we were already praying before, but now we are adding something!), we direct our focus more to God and away from self than before. Almsgiving puts our focus upon our neighbor in need, and so also brings us to discover God in “the least of these.”
May the penances we do this Lent help us to grow in love for God and for neighbor, and may this increase in charity bear fruit in our lives, in the life of the Church, and in the life of the world.