It’s hard to believe, but this week is Ash Wednesday. In some ways with the events in our world, it feels like last year’s Lent never really ended. Yet, here we are. In so many ways, it feels like we’re in a different world from last year. Yet, one of the beautiful things about our faith is that it’s the same in season and out of season, in every age. Perhaps it’s good to realize that the seasons of our faith, Advent, Christmas, Ordinary Time, Lent, and Easter can give us some stability when in the rest of the world, we never know what tomorrow might bring.
So this week, as we begin the season of Lent, I’d ask us all to reflect on the three pillars of Lent, Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving. If you’d like to hear me talk about this in person, I’ll be on TV this weekend for our Diocesan news show, “Proclaim!” talking about the beginning of Lent. You can watch it on Channel 8, or online. You can click the link on our parish website.
When Lent comes around, I think most of us ask one question: What are you giving up for Lent?” While it’s certainly a longstanding and good practice, If we’re not careful, to an outsider, that can sound pretty unhealthy, almost like we’re saying that “my religion says if mistreat myself, God will love me more.” Of course, I hope we all realize that’s not the reality at all. It comes from these three pillars of Lent, Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving.
Lent is a time, as my seminary rector used to say, “when the whole Church goes on retreat.” It’s a time of preparation and training. Realizing that difficult times were coming, Jesus turned toward Jerusalem and began to prepare himself for his passion and death that he knew was to come. He was preparing himself to give the ultimate gift of love, his very life for love of us.
So as we walk on this journey with our Lord, we start with fasting. Of course, I think most of us think of fasting simply as not eating because our church calls all of us between 18-65 to fast on Ash Wednesday & Good Friday. Yet, it’s so much more than that. Fasting is intentionally choosing to deny ourselves something good. We do that as a way of training ourselves so that we are in better control of our bodies than our bodies are in control of us. I think we’ve all tried to give up something we liked for Lent, only to discover a few days in that it was a lot harder than we expected. Whether we give up a little sleep to get up and exercise or if we try to give up snacks between meals, or even chocolate or coffee. It’s hard to discipline ourselves and get ourselves into a routine, and we never realize just how much power those things have over us until we try to give them up. Yet, once we do, we can often look back and see just how much control those things had over us. Fasting, really, is about reclaiming control over our bodies. I find it helpful to realize that the vice opposed to fasting isn’t feasting, it’s addiction.
That brings us to almsgiving. It’s easy to think of almsgiving as making a donation to the things that we see as important. If I want to see something, I need to invest my time and money into it. Almsgiving though, is a bit different. Almsgiving begins with the realization that everything I have is not really mine to begin with. Each of us have to recognize from the depth of our soul that we could do nothing without the gifts God has given us. Where we are able to earn a living, we do that by using our God-given abilities. Even our very ability to breathe and eat are given to us by God. So then, by extension, we’re called to recognize that and give back a portion of what we’ve been given. Jesus tells us “whatsoever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me.” So then, we realize that God did provide for all those who are struggling right now. We, his people, are how he provides for those in need. Right here, that means not just supporting our Church, but supporting things like some of our second collections, like Ash Wednesday that supports our sister diocese in Mandeville, it means supporting food banks like the one here in town and our SvDP Food Bank in Hastings, and it means working with and supporting some of our community organizations that help those in need, like our own St. Vincent DePaul Council right here in town. Sometimes, that Almsgiving can be in informal ways too. It might be some anonymous gesture, helping out a neighbor in some way that no one else will ever see, but at it’s core, it’s about giving back that which has been entrusted to us.
Then finally, we have Prayer, the most important of the pillars. Fasting and almsgiving really help to set our bodies and minds into the right state to be able to really enter into prayer properly. Prayer is a conversation with God. If we’re going to have a real conversation with the creator of everything, it’s probably good to start by realizing He really is the creator of everything. With that in mind, when we approach God, we have to be open to that conversation. It can happen through reading scripture, through devotions like Stations of the Cross, through the sacraments, especially Reconciliation, and all sorts of other ways. The key though, is to realize that we’re the ones listening to the Master. We might ask for help where we’re confused, but ultimately in prayer, we’re looking to listen so that we might be changed.
As I think through all of those pillars, Lent is a time when we really prepare to follow Jesus in his journey to the cross, a journey he makes not because he’s looking forward to the suffering, but because he loves us so much he’s willing to endure anything for our salvation. As we walk this journey alongside him as we do every Lent, I’d challenge all of us to really take these pillars seriously so that all of us can join in Jesus’s prayer in the Garden, “Not my will, but yours be done.” When we pray that prayer with all of our hearts, we can be truly happy, with a joy that nothing in the world could destroy, because it doesn't come from the world, but from the one who created the world.
May God Bless you now and always
- Fr Matt
Father Matthew Baum is the Parish Administrator at Prince of Peace Church in Northern Cambria, PA.