March 3, 2017
An excerpt of an overview of the Lenten season and penitence practices from Word on Fire:
The Church asks us to accomplish three practices that are integral to our observance of Lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Prayer is essential to the life of Faith, and by prayer, the Church does not invite us to simply be alone with our thoughts. Prayer is placing oneself at God’s disposal. What must we do? Wait and wonder. What will God do? That is up to him. As such, prayer is essentially an expression of a disposition to trust God’s purposes.
This disposition of trust expresses itself liturgically (in the formal prayer of what is called the Divine Office and in the Mass) and devotionally (examples of which are practices like the Rosary or the Stations of the Cross). In the Divine Office the faithful pray in communion with Christ in the words of the Psalms, words which Christ himself knew and prayed. In the Mass, we receive not merely words, but Christ’s divine life and presence, given to us in the Blessed Sacrament. Without liturgical and devotional prayer, attempts at prayer quickly degenerate into self-reference.
Through fasting we deprive the body of food. Why?
Fasting is an exercise in detachment from something that we consider to be necessary and a source of comfort. The experience of deprivation that comes from detachment compels us to consider how worldly things and pre-occupations are so easily elevated to ultimate concern and become rivals to God. Often times the most insidious forms of idolatry happen when our assent to an idol is tacit, rather than blatant. Fasting provokes us to a relentless test of our sincerity. Whereas prayer insists on trust, fasting insists on authenticity. What sacrifice do we offer and to whom? Is it the one, true God or some other worldly thing, concern or power?
Further, fasting toughens us for mission. In a conscious and deliberate attempt to deprive ourselves small things, we prepare ourselves for the occasions when we will be asked to deprive ourselves of greater things. All this is accomplished for the sake of the mission Christ gives to us. His mission, our mission is love, and love always necessitates a sacrifice.
Finally, we are asked to give alms. Almsgiving is more than just allocating surplus funds to a charitable organization or cause. More is expected of us than that! Think of almsgiving as acts of generosity that enable the performance of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. It is through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy that we show ourselves to be faithful, rather than accidental, disciples.
Ours is an age of scandals, and one of the great scandals that has become a stumbling block to so many in terms of the Faith is that too many of the faithful have come to believe that the performance of the works of mercy is a matter of delegation. We make the works of mercy works for hire and exempt ourselves from having to actually do them ourselves. Not so! The works of mercy cannot be delegated. We each have to do them and it is through our participation in the works of mercy that almsgiving is fulfilled.
Almsgiving places a demand on us to receive Christ as he presents himself to us in his poor. This can be an off-putting experience because Christ arrives in his poor on his own terms. Our place, once he makes his presence known, is not to control, but to serve. And as in his poor, Christ takes the lowest place, we are compelled to take our place beneath him- as servants of the One who makes himself a slave. The performance of such service often resists offering to us the kinds of consolations that we might expect from our service to the Lord, but it is precisely in this that our service becomes efficacious- we learn from this experience how to imitate Christ’s generosity, who gave to us fully knowing that what he gave was undeserved, could not be reciprocated and would be unappreciated by many. It is in imitation of Christ’s service and acceptance of his conditions that our own service is perfected.
Almsgiving is also a reminder of our own mortality, inasmuch as all worldly goods will be surrendered at the moment of death. Rather than building ever greater storehouses for our possessions, we give what we have away. That we do so incrementally prepares us for the surrender of all worldly goods that will ultimately come.
Prayer. Fasting. Almsgiving. None of these are ends in themselves, but instead each is a way, a way that is opening us up to the Church’s spiritual passage into the great mysteries of Holy Week.