It might seem strange for me to say this, but Lent is one of my favorite times of year. There’s the fish fry season to get excited about. There’s beautiful music and liturgy. There’s the Stations of the Cross. You even have restaurant chains trying to capitalize on us Catholics, opting to serve fish patties in place of hamburgers and putting out great commercials to advertise their Lenten deals. In fact, I was going to ask our musicians to play the McDonalds filet-o-fish song for our opening hymn, but I thought that might be inappropriate. Let’s face it, if it weren’t for Lent, Long John Silvers might go out of business! So yes, there are a lot of things to love during Lent. But the real thing I love about Lent is the opportunities it gives us to grow in our faith.
Today, we hear that the “Spirit drove Jesus into the desert.” What a great passage this is to begin the Season of Lent! Jesus didn’t just get up off the recliner and decide to go into the desert. He didn’t go out there on a walk-about, trying to find himself. No, the passage tells us that the Spirit drove him into the desert, and that’s why he was there. This past Wednesday, we ourselves were driven out into the desert of this season, our own forty days in the desert like that of Jesus. And I think it’s important that we meditate on why we’re here.
Usually, the thing in our minds that sticks out in our minds are the disciplines of fasting and abstinence. When I was a kid, we never ate fish outside of Lent, so I could always tell we were getting close to this season when my mom would buy fish sticks out of the frozen section in the grocery store. The Church asks us to take part in these disciplines. Abstinence of course is that practice whereby every Catholic 14 years and older abstains from eating meat. (It says 14, but I’ll let the parents decide what they want to do.) Fasting, on the other hand, is that practice in which every Catholic adult is called to eat noticeably less than normal. Now, fasting is only required of us on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday here in the United States, but nevertheless, we’re each encouraged to fast of something during Lent. Thus, you get the traditional practice of “giving something up.” In some ways, though, our tradition of fasting has gotten a bit watered down. Lots of people see their Lenten promise as an activity in self-improvement or a test of some kind. It becomes less of a discipline, and more of a question of “how strong am I?” It gives people a goal to work towards, something that stands out from the normal routine. Now, none of this is bad, but what is the real meaning of fasting?
Fasting for a Catholic should be more than just some exercise in self-help or self-discipline. Really, Lent is supposed to be here for spiritual discipline. If it’s about self-help, we are driven out into the desert of Lent by ourselves. If we focus on the spiritual discipline of Lent, however, we are simply answering the call to be driven out to the desert by the Holy Spirit, as we hear of Jesus in the Gospel. There are two purposes to fasting during Lent that I see. The first is that fasting is an act of penance. Whether it’s something like giving up chocolate during Lent, drinking only water during lunch, or even something big like having bread and water for dinner a few days a week, the meaning is the same. What it boils down to is that we’re freely choosing to deny ourselves. We don’t do this to show others how tough we are or to exercise our self-help muscles. But by acknowledging our tendencies toward self-centeredness and self-indulgence – our tendencies toward sin – our self-denial makes a statement to the Lord. Through our fasting, we tell the Lord that we’re truly sorry for always thinking of ourselves and our hungers and our desires, and we strive to change that spirit of self-centeredness into a spirit of self-giving. In that way, fasting really is penitential.
But the other reason I see for fasting is that it’s an opportunity for us to grow in our relationship with Christ. We’ve shown that we’re sorry for our sins, and that’s really the first step. But the second step builds on that. It’s easy to start our Lenten practices and it’s easy for about a week or two. But after that, you know there will be days when you find yourself hungry, or when you really want that chocolate that you gave up, or when you really want that juicy porterhouse steak on a Friday. But really, fasting offers us an opportunity to turn that physical hunger and that physical desire into a spiritual one. In a sense, you could think to yourself, “Lord, I really want that chocolate right now, but I want you more. Lord, I really want that porterhouse right now, but I want you more.” And through this practice of fasting, when Easter comes, and you can sink your teeth into a nice Hershey’s bar or a juicy steak, you can celebrate not only the greatness of the taste, but the great joy of the resurrection of Christ.
Pope Benedict talked about this in 2009 during Lent. “Denying material food, which nourishes our body, nurtures an interior disposition to listen to Christ and be fed by His saving word. Through fasting and praying, we allow Him to come and satisfy the deepest hunger that we experience in the depths of our being: the hunger and thirst for God… Freely chosen detachment from the pleasure of food and other material goods helps the disciple of Christ to control the appetites of nature, weakened by original sin, whose negative effects impact the entire human person.”
So maybe the question we can ask ourselves today as we begin this season of Lent, is what has led us here. Have I been driven into the desert for myself – for my self-help, my pride, or just because I feel I have to jump through the hoops? Or have I been led out into the desert for the Spirit – to offer these sacrifices for love of God. As we enter this season of Lent, may our works of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving be things that lead us to repent of our sins, and ultimately to grow in our desire and relationship with God.