It’s that time of the year again. Most Christians have to face an important decision in their lives — what to “give up” for Lent.
Last year I was invited to a Facebook page where people were posting the all-important decision they had made. I was fascinated that the trend hasn’t changed: no sweets and no coffee still are tops. There’s a new “tech” trend: no Internet. I couldn’t help posting on my own Facebook page, “So we’ll have a lot of unsweetened, decaffeinated, and dis-Interneted Christians on the planet again. But will we love each other any more for it?” To which my sister-in-law promptly commented, “No, it will make us grumpier! If the point of Lent was for us to love each other more… it would be 40 days of chocolate, coffee, and alcohol!”
So, what are you giving up for Lent? To answer that question, I think it is good to know why we ask ourselves this question in the first place. The Season of Lent is meant to be a time in which each follower of Christ assesses his or her following of Christ. In this sense we can say it is a penitential season. In other words, we discover how our following of Christ is lacking and make the choice to change those areas of our lives. The Catechism of the Catholic Church adds a twist: “By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert” (paragraph 540). Fasting, prayer, and works of mercy are traditionally extended to us in the Church as ways of living Lent more intensely since these practices can allow us to become more like Christ.
The question, then, about giving something up is associated with a form of penance in which we deny ourselves something we like in order to show that we are sorry for our sins. This is the easiest way to explain this aspect of Lent with children. But is it an adequate question for adults? Is there only one question — a one-size-fits-all approach — to answering the call to be more like Christ during Lent? How can the question be reframed so that it can lead to a life-changing experience with Christ?
Jesus’ temptation — and our own
Let’s take a step back and see what Jesus does when he enters into that desert experience as recounted by Luke (4:1-14). If our Lent is to be one in which we unite ourselves to that experience, maybe that’s a good place to start. For me, the most significant reality is that it is the Holy Spirit who leads Jesus there. He will be tested and so he fasts and prays. He is victorious over the evil one through the Word of God. And when the tempting is over he returns to Galilee “in the power of the Spirit.”
This passage is Jesus’ unique experience. There is no one-size-fits-all approach here. He didn’t do what everyone else was doing; he wasn’t following the trends at the time. With the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Jesus enters into the experience. His response is fasting, prayer, and reliance on the Word of God. And he is empowered by this experience.
This tells me that my own response needs to be just as uniquely my own as the temptation to which I succumb is uniquely mine. After all, it is temptation that often derails me in my following of Christ. In the silence of my heart, where the Holy Spirit dwells, I can listen to the movement of God leading me toward those practices that will help me live more like Christ.
Some helpful questions to ask might be:
• What part of my life do I need to expose to the Holy Spirit in the sanctuary of my heart?
• What temptation is prevalent in my life that does not allow me to follow Christ?
• What type of penance might be the best response? Prayer? Fasting? Almsgiving? Works of Mercy?
• If I choose to turn to prayer, what type of prayer would be most helpful? How often? Where?
• If I choose to fast from something in my life, what would make me feel its absence so keenly that without it I would need to cling to God? What I choose may be material, but it might also be fasting from a certain action, such as using sarcasm, or refraining from gossiping.
• Would a work of mercy respond best? Where might the Holy Spirit want me to be present to volunteer my time and enter into the need of others and be present to them?
With this approach, I hope that your Lent and my Lent are more than just waiting for the day when we can eat chocolate or have that cup of coffee again. I hope that Lent can be a time of growth for you so that you too can know the blessing of being empowered by God’s Spirit.
[Originally published February 15, 2012.]