Busted Halo
feature: religion & spirituality
March 4th, 2014

In Defense of Lenten Sacrifice

Does "adding something" really add to your Lenten experience? How traditional sacrifice can bring you closer to God


If you’re up on all those Catholic trends, this scenario has probably played out during the last couple Lents: You turn down a beer or dessert, explaining that you’ve given it up for these next 40 days. Your Catholic friend smiles tolerantly. “Oh, that’s nice,” she says. “Instead of giving something up, I’m actually adding a daily Bible reading.”

“Adding something” has been the new approach to the old Lenten tradition, and it’s not hard to understand why. For too long, many Catholics have sacrificed something easy or gone through the motions. Worse, some give up things more for self-improvement or dieting purposes than spiritual ones. The motto of those dessert-skippers might as well be “Skinny for God!”

So last year, after decades of giving something up (including, yes, desserts), I decided to try adding something. It was a daily reading. Embarrassingly, I can’t even remember whether it was from the Bible or a devotional. That’s because it didn’t work. As strict as I always was about avoiding a sacrificed treat or activity, I did not manage to get the extra reading done. Ever overscheduled, I seemed to be getting up early and going to bed late enough as it was.

And that is part of why I think old-fashioned sacrifice works better for Lent. Particularly for Americans, it’s countercultural. We constantly take on more — more clubs, commitments and responsibilities. Rarely, if ever, are we asked to sacrifice anything, even in times of duress. During World War II, there were war rations and victory gardens. Infamously, the post-9/11 directive was to go shopping.

Giving up something is also in keeping with the season. Lent was inspired by Jesus’ trip into the barren desert. He was preparing to give up his life. In that spirit, it feels right for us to sacrifice something as if in the desert — to get down to the basics of prayer and fasting and reflect on the coming crucifixion.

We don’t have to sacrifice in the same old Catholic ways. Today we can look beyond cutting out a bad habit and purposefully give up something for the common good. During a recent Lenten Season, the leader of the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change suggested giving up plastic bags, incandescent bulbs, or disposable paper products. “Lent is the perfect time to examine our lifestyles,” he said. I tried giving up my car for 40 days. It was good for both the environment and for simplifying the pace of life, and it remains one of my most rewarding sacrifices.

All that said, there still is room for adding things, at least for some Catholics. Often forgotten is that the Catholic approach to Lent is threefold: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. So extra giving, like through CRS Rice Bowl or another charity, can take place in addition to sacrificing. And prayer could take the form of going to Mass more often, even daily. If adding Mass, though, consider forgoing some other commitment to keep Mass from being another time obligation in the day.

Even religious trends ebb and flow, but Lent will always represent Jesus’ time in the desert. Keep that spirit alive by subtracting something. But don’t just go through the motions as in the past — make the chosen item or activity conscious and purposeful. Then embrace the simplicity and daily reminder of Christ’s sacrifice that “giving something up” provides.

The Author : Lynn Freehill-Maye
A freelance travel and lifestyle writer, Lynn likes to explore her faith through journeys — both far away and close to home. She's lived and worked in the Midwest, Southwest, Northeast, Europe, Africa, Central and South America, and now upstate New York.
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  • Bob Faser

    I don’t think it’s an either/or. You can give something up, and also add on (for example) some extra scripture study.
    Also with the “giving up”, there’s a choice between (on the one hand) giving up some harmless treat so that you can enjoy it with greater thankfulness at Easter (and donate the money saved to something appropriate) and (on the other hand) giving up some bad habit permanently … beginning with Lent.
    It all depends on how you see God’s call working on your life at the time.

  • Roxanne Borg

    I completely agree with this wonderful article. I do feel, however, that if ‘adding something’ works for some people, if it means they spend more time, daily, in prayer, then it’s definitely to be encouraged, even if they choose not to ‘forego’ or ‘give up’ something else.

  • Tina

    I pretty much think that if you’re going to give something up, don’t give up your mission. Give up the biggest distraction from it. Your breaks can be spent with God, not on your distraction.

  • Eubbie

    I am going through my closet and packing away anything that is made in a country where children are at high risk for forced child labor. I’m sure I won’t have much to wear when I’m done, but it will certainly make me think when I get dressed every day.

  • http://twitter.com/JuliaSaysPax JuliaSaysPax

    I agree with RoamingCatholic. The two can even work together (a la giving up tv/recreational internet use and praying a daily rosary in the time you would have spent in front of the screen)

  • Lynn

    Thanks for all the insightful comments! I’d like to respond particularly to the request for more ideas for socially conscious things to give up. A few thoughts that popped to mind: Abstain from all meat and/or fish, or at least all non-sustainably raised meat/fish. Hold off from buying any clothing purchases (or at least any of the new, non-used variety). Commit to not buying any products that aren’t socially responsible (the Better World Shopper app for the phone grades companies on this). Stop drinking beer, wine and/or liquor. Give up any kind of gossiping or speaking negatively of others. These are just a few ideas with a societal, not just environmental, impact—there are many more, and I’d love to hear some as well!

    • Bob Faser

      A standard suggestion in some of my pre-Lenten homilies is that people think of some group of people towards whom they hold a prejudice, and to make the overcoming of that prejudice their Lenten discipline.

  • Sarah

    You mention your “adding something” of adding a daily reading “didn’t work” because of being over-scheduled as it was. Jesus didn’t go into the desert just for the heck of it. He *gave up* his schedule of teaching and miracles, food, etc. so he could focus his whole being on time with his father. If we add something during this time of lent you need to make room for it in your life. Sometimes that means giving up something else in order to spend more face time with our Heavenly Father. Anything given up or added should ALWAYS lead us to prayer and spending time with God.

  • Elizabeth

    You’ve articulated something I’ve felt and thought for a long time. Thanks so much– right on the money, and a needed contribution to our community’s conversation about Lent.

  • http://www.catholic.com/ likeasaint

    Thanks for the article. I’d like more ideas for giving up things outside of environmentalism.

  • RoamingCatholic

    I totally agree about the value of the old-fashioned Lenten sacrifice, and I chafe to hear people talk about adding something *instead* of giving something up. But why not make it a both/and? The best advice I’ve gotten on Lent was in RCIA, when it was suggested that we “do a negative and a positive” (i.e. give something up and do something extra), and I’ve tried to follow that ever since. More recently, I’ve tried to expand that into finding a practice to correspond with each of the three traditional Lenten emphases of fasting, praying, and almsgiving.

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