Apparently, giving something up for Lent has become lame. I hear it from a growing number of Catholic teachers. I heard it on Ash Wednesday from my parish priest. The current wisdom is instead of sacrificing something for Lent and making yourself miserable, we should focus on doing something “positive” instead.
Now, I have to believe that the hearts of these teachers are in the right place. They are trying to combat errors like legalism and minimalism – the attitude that says, “What’s the least I need to do to be a ‘good’ Catholic?” Too many Catholics use the Lenten sacrifice as a legalistic minimum, without exploring the depths of its meaning and purpose. So Catholic teachers are telling people to skip the sacrifice, and instead to do something more meaningful. That’s all well and good.
But the Church gives us the Lenten sacrifice for good reason! If we’ve lost sight of that reason and made the practice into a legalistic “have to,” should we really just stop doing it? Or would a better response be to recapture the true meaning of the Lenten sacrifice?
The Origins of the Lenten Sacrifice
Lent has traditionally been the major time of preparation for those entering the Church. Your parish may have RCIA candidates who go through a series of special ceremonies (like the “Rite of Acceptance”) and blessings. Traditionally Lent has been a time of sacrificial penance for adults entering the Church. They went through some rather “harsh” penances in order to turn away from their old life and embrace their new life in Jesus.
Christians within the Church would often voluntarily take on penances during this season as well, in loving support and solidarity with those seeking entrance into the Church. The message of this voluntary penance was three-fold.
1. You’re not alone. We love you and support you and are excited to see you come into full communion with Christ and His Church!
We are all sinners seeking the mercy of God. This is not a matter of you-sinner we-holy. We’re on this journey toward holiness together.
May our acts of penance give you additional grace to face your sins, seek forgiveness and strive toward holiness.
Like many practices, this one moved from a voluntary act of love to a routine tradition. Through the years the focus shifted from solidarity with the catechumens to a personal act of purification and penance. Most parishioners aren’t even aware that there are people preparing to enter the Church, unless the catechumens are presented for the Rite of Acceptance.
In truth, the Lenten sacrifice should be BOTH an act of personal penance and purification AND an act of love and solidarity. In this sense, it IS doing something positive.
The Lenten Sacrifice Challenge
I want to challenge you and all of my From the Abbey followers to re-capture the original meaning of the Lenten Sacrifice. There’s nothing wrong with choosing a sacrifice for personal purification and penance. But lets’s also perform our sacrifice in loving solidarity of those preparing to enter the Church!
The Postulant Membership of From the Abbey has two people who are currently in RCIA. Please offer your sacrifice for them, for the catechumens in your own parish, and for all of the catechumens in your diocese.
As for doing something “more positive” for Lent, when has our faith ever been an either-or proposition? Let’s make our act of sacrifice a positive act by doing it out of love for someone else. And let’s also do things that are positive for our own relationship with God. We’ll talk more about that in another article.