May my exploration of faith be a blessing to others.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Beginner's Guide to Lent

Fast. Abstain. Penance. Almsgiving. Terms like these may seem archaic, unnecessary, confusing or even scary to the newly initiated, especially as we enter the Lenten season. For those of us who were not raised Catholic, it can be challenging to figure out what's going on, what is expected of you and how to do it. The good news is that all of these observations and tradition, are a lot less stringent than you might think. The Church does not expect you to go on a hunger strike, never eat meat, give up all of your favorite activities, or give away all that you have. The guidelines are actually not terribly difficult and can help deepen your connection to God and to the crucifixion and resurrection.

What is Lent? 
Lent is the 40 days (not including Sundays) when we mirror Christ's 40 days in the wilderness as a time to focus on our spiritual wellness and to deepen our faith and understanding. It is a time of reflection, repentance, and service to others. Sundays are not included because we celebrate Christ's resurrection every Sunday. Sundays are a day for rejoicing not sorrow as we unite with God and each other through the Eucharist. To assist in your reflection and to build discipline, the Church calls on you to pray, fast, abstain, and participate in almsgiving.

I used to think that fasting meant not eating at all but this is not the case. The Church defines fasting as eating only one (meatless) meal a day and you can supplement this with two snacks. This sacrifice is intended to help you focus on your spiritual hunger and to realize your blessings. It is not meant to be a punishment or to cause you physical harm. In fact, if you have an illness or condition that requires you to maintain certain dietary requirements like diabetes or pregnancy, you should modify your fast as needed or not fast at all. Otherwise, during Lent, you should observe a fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

In today's world, we often hear the word 'abstain' in reference to sex. That's not what this is about. Rather, it is about abstaining from consuming flesh. This means that you avoid the meat of warm-blooded creatures: mammals (cows, pigs, deer, etc.) and fowl (chicken, duck, turkey, etc.). However, you can still eat their products like milk, eggs, butter, sauces, and gelatin. You can also eat cold-blooded creatures like fish, frogs, shrimp, alligator, etc. The specific reason for not eating flesh is to show respect for the sacrifice of Christ's flesh. That's why most of Catholic world abstains on all Fridays--the day we remember the Crucifixion. In the U.S., however, the Bishops got the Pope to excuse from this in return for offering more good work. (So, if you don't abstain on Fridays, you are supposed to be extra charitable.) During Lent, we are expected to abstain from meat on all Fridays. 

As mentioned above, you should not participate in these penitential acts if they are harmful to your health or the health of your child in the case of a pregnant or nursing mother. You are not expected to fast until the age of 18, although you should abstain beginning at age 14. People aged 60 and older are excused from both. You are also permitted to break your fast or abstinence if observing it would cause offense to a host. For instance, if your boss invites you to dinner and serves you steak, you can eat it. 

Giving Something Up
The Church does not regulate the longstanding tradition of giving something up during Lent. The Church views these penitential acts as a disciplinary observances that can help the individual focus on the meaning of the season. Many people choose to give up something they love, like chocolate or candy, or something that is harmful to them, like smoking, or bad habit, like oversleeping. Others, select to give up a particular comfort or vanity item (like sleeping pillows or wearing makeup). Whether you choose to forego a particular food or habit or comfort, you should not choose something that is going to be so difficult that it will result in frustration or anger. (The year I gave up sodas, I was depressed and mean and not even interested in eating at all during the last 10 days!) Again, the purpose of all of these penances is not to actually punish yourself, but to discipline yourself. So, you can indulge in whatever you have surrendered on Sundays if you wish. However, if you are truly trying to discipline yourself into a new habit (like not smoking), taking a break once a week could undo that effort.

We are called at all times to be charitable, whether through contributions of money, goods, services, or time. During Lent, we are asked to increase our charitable practices. You can do this by contributing to special appeals, identifying a new cause you'd like to support, volunteering more, or making more time for others. If you don't have money to spare, clean out your closets and donate those clothes you don't wear. Volunteer to help at the local shelter or spend a Saturday visiting people in a retirement community. Or, you could make an extra effort to say thank you by making a meal for the people you work with or reaching out to family or friends you've lost touch with. Remember, Jesus washed the feet of the apostles. If He can do this, there is no charity too low or too small for you.

What else can you do?
If you want to really step up your observations during this time, go to Mass more frequently. Even if your parish does not offer daily Mass, there is likely a church in your area that does. You could also make an effort to attend all of the special Masses of the season: Ash Wednesday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Saturday Vigil--which is when we welcome new Catholics into the church. If you live in a city that is the base of a bishop or archbishop, you can also attend the Chrism Mass during the week before Easter. All of the priests of the diocese participate in this ceremony, reaffirming their own commitment and blessing the holy oils that will be used throughout the upcoming year. If you have the resources, go to Jerusalem or to the Vatican--I think we should all do this at least once in our lives. You can also pray more by attending Stations of the Cross, Rosary, or Novena or performing an Adoration. Join a study group, read the daily readings, study the Catechism, or watch or listen to Catholic can provide you with schedules and programs. (When I am too ill to go to Mass, I always tune into one on the local EWTN station.)  And, don't forget reconciliation. There is no better time to repent and seek forgiveness than now.

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