By Regis Flaherty
Regis Flaherty is a bestselling author of several books, including Jesus Is the Gift: The Spirituality of Advent & Christmas.
Lent is the season for turning away from sin and living a life more conformed to the will and plan of God. Penitential practices are a means to that end. Like diet and exercise for the athlete, prayer, mortification, and almsgiving are ways for the Catholic to grow in faith and get closer to Jesus.
A greater focus on prayer may include an effort to attend Mass more often, a trip to a shrine, or a resolve to be more cognizant of God’s presence throughout the day. Penitential practices can take many forms, but the two most common practices are almsgiving and fasting.
Almsgiving is an exercise of the virtue of charity. It is giving money or goods for the needs of the poor. The “Lenten rice bowl” is one popular means of practicing almsgiving by giving up some food at each meal and then setting aside the money saved for the needy.
The advantages of penitential practices are many. They remind us that we are sinners in need of Christ’s salvation. They declare we are serious about overcoming our sins. They dispose us to hear God more clearly and to receive His grace. They do not win us salvation nor do they garner “points” toward heaven; salvation and eternal life are gifts of God to those who believe and walk in His ways. Acts of penance, when undertaken in a spirit of love, help us to grow closer to God.
Fasting is abstaining from something good and legitimate for the sake of something better and more important. In particular, fasting usually refers to limiting the ingestion of food or drink. A person fasts to identify with the sufferings of Jesus in some small way.
Fasting also proclaims our dependence on God for all things. Combined with prayer and other forms of mortification, fasting is an aid to prayer and a way to open the heart and mind to the presence and grace of God.
Fasting has always been a part of the Lenten routine of devotion. Originally, the legislated fast limited the consumption of food to one meal a day during the weekdays of Lent. Also, meat and the by-products of meat animals, such as eggs, milk, and cheese, were prohibited.
The practice of eating pancakes or donuts on Shrove Tuesday (the day prior to Ash Wednesday, commonly known as “Fat Tuesday”) developed because that was the last opportunity before Lent to enjoy foods made with milk and butter. This fast also explains the origin of the tradition of Easter eggs. After a Lent without eggs, those enjoyed on Easter tasted especially good! Of course, allowances were made for those with physical ailments or other physical limitations who could not fully participate in this fast.
Over time this Church discipline has been relaxed. Now the assigned fast is to limit consumption of food to one main meal and two small meals per day, with no food between meals. Today, fasting is required only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
The regimented requirements of fasting were removed to allow the faithful more latitude in practicing mortifications that are meaningful to the individual. St. John Chrysostom pointed out that a real fast consists not merely in abstaining from food but in abstaining from sin. Thus the mortifications of Lent, such as fasting, are to strengthen the Catholic to avoid sin.
The Church continues to call for fasting and other mortifications. However, the Church also encourages individuals to choose practices that they find personally meaningful and helpful.
One particular form of fasting is abstaining from meat on Fridays. Although at one time this was required for all Fridays of the year, now it is required only on the Fridays in Lent. The obvious question is “why then is it permitted to eat fish?” According to the definition in use at the time of the regulation, “meat” was the flesh of warm-blooded creatures. Cold-blooded creatures such as fish, turtles, and crabs were excluded because they are cold-blooded. Therefore, fish became the alternative to “meat” on days of abstinence.
Another common Lenten practice is to pray the Stations of the Cross. From ancient times, the faithful remembered and visited places in Jerusalem associated with the Passion and death of Christ. A popular devotion was to “walk the Passion with Jesus” by traveling the same route that Jesus had taken to Calvary. Along the way the individual would stop at places of significance to spend time in prayer and reflection.
Obviously it was impossible for everyone to make the trip to Jerusalem to walk in the steps of Jesus. So, during the Middle Ages the practice arose of establishing these “stations” of the Passion of Jesus in local churches. Individual stations would depict a specific scene or event from that walk to Calvary. The faithful could then use this local walk as a means of prayer and meditation on the suffering of Jesus.
Initially the number of stops for meditation and the themes of each station varied widely. By the seventeenth century the number of stations had been set at fourteen and the devotion had spread throughout Christendom.
The Stations of the Cross can be made at any time. Usually the individual will visit a church and walk from station to station, pausing at each for a period of prayer and meditation on some aspect of the Passion of Christ. The devotion has particular significance in Lent as the faithful anticipate the celebration of Christ’s Passion during Holy Week. Thus in Lent many churches conduct communal celebrations of the Stations of the Cross, normally celebrated on Fridays.
Christ directed each disciple to “take up his cross and follow” Him (Matt 16:24). The Stations of the Cross—along with all of the season of Lent—allow the believer to do that in a literal manner, while striving to be more intimately united with Christ in His Passion.
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