A version of this article first appeared on the author's Theology of Desire blog.
Lent is the Old English word for spring, but in almost all other languages the term derives from the Latin term quadragesima or "the 40 days." 40 is the traditional number of days for discipline, devotion, and preparation. Just think of Moses on the mountain, Elijah on his travels to the cave of visions, Nineveh’s deadline to repent, and most significantly, Jesus' time in the wilderness praying, fasting, and experiencing the temptation that humanity faces:
For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sinning. (Heb. 4:15)
Through the solemn 40 days of Lent, the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert. "To follow and imitate Christ more nearly and to manifest more clearly his self-emptying is to be more deeply present to one’s contemporaries, in the heart of Christ. For those who are on this narrower path encourage their brethren by their example…"
Rev. Lawrence E. Mick wrote that Lent is “radically baptismal.” He said our modern 40-day observation grew out of three original sources; an ancient 2-day paschal fast before Easter, the “catechumenate” preparation for baptism of adults, and the “Order of Penitents” conversion process for baptized people who had turned away from God but were ready to turn back.
As the catechumen went through their baptismal preparation process, the rest of the congregation walked with them spiritually, renewing their own baptismal promises. This idea of renewed conversion is the ongoing work of the whole Church who, “clasping sinners to her bosom, is at once holy and always in need of purification, and follows constantly the path of penance and renewal.” But what does this idea of penance mean?
The three keys are prayer, fasting, and charity or alms giving.
Prayer doesn't require much explanation. We all know what praying is, but Lent is a great time to increase your prayer time and perhaps give it a particular focus. There are numerous spiritual resources designed for the season, and of course I recommend my Where True Love Is devotional. It is 90-days long rather than forty, but the first half offers a powerfully loving look at questions like who is God, what are the scriptures, Jesus and the law, and other issues.
Fasting helps us learn to have power over our instinctual responses, which results in spiritual and emotional freedom. When we aren't controlled by our physical or emotional hungers, we are free to make true choices. Fasting or giving something up during Lent helps discipline our wills so that we aren't slaves to our pleasures. When we train ourselves to resist temptations that are not sinful, we increase our ability to resist temptations that are sinful.
Fridays during Lent are days of abstinence from meat in liturgical traditions. Abstaining from meat helps us remember the needs of the poor. Some families eat simple meals such as rice and beans on Friday, and give the money that would have otherwise been used for the meal to the needy. If you give up steak but eat lobster, you’re missing the point! Fasting should be linked to our concern for those who are forced to fast by their poverty. Connecting charitable acts with fasting activities—for example, donating food we would otherwise have eaten to the hungry—brings a particular richness and depth of understanding to our Lenten experience.
Almsgiving is a lesser known and lesser practiced Lenten discipline, however, almsgiving and charity are logical acts during this season, as they are outward signs and actions that our inner conversion is real and that we take Jesus’ instructions seriously. Isaiah 58:6-7 reads:
This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.
Incorporating the practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving this Lent can help you reach new levels of spiritual breadth and preparation. Give it a try, and see what happens.
This article contains excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church ©1994 and from Lenten Customs, Baptism is the Key by Rev. Lawrence E. Mick.