This question comes up all the time. “What are you giving up for Lent?” Among the usual responses are smoking, drinking, chocolate, coffee and possibly even a dreaded childhood food like spinach. What does it mean to give up something for Lent?
Many of the prayers, rituals and traditions of the Church deliberately invoke memories of our Trinitarian God. They inspire us to remember the works of God the Father, the love that God had for humankind by sending His Son, Jesus, to die for our sins, and the gifts God sends through the Holy Spirit. They also remind us that God is dynamic and that God’s loving care remains active and present all around us today. Giving up chocolate for Lent seems trivial compared to giving up one’s own life so another may live.
Lent is a time for Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving. It is a time that points to and leads us to the joy of the Easter celebration. The word Lent evolved from the Anglo-Saxon word meaning “to lengthen.” This referred to springtime when the daylight gets longer. When thinking about the Easter Season, our society quickly jumps to worldly thoughts of brightly colored Easter Eggs, the Easter Bunny, and bouquets of spring flowers. Often, the message of Easter is drowned out by the noise of the modern world. The time of Lent is overpowered by Easter promotions, advertisements, store sales, and the coming of warmer weather. Our world bombards us with lots of background noise. None of it is helpful to our spiritual life.
How do we return to God amid all the world’s distractions? To eliminate the noise we have to move to a quiet place. An old hymn comes to mind titled, “Speak, Lord, in the stillness.” God is speaking to us all the time. We have a hard time hearing God through the noise. We need to get ourselves to that quiet place in order to hear but it’s not easy to get there. Beside the worldly noise coming at us as sound and images there is also that emotional noise. Our daily concerns, thoughts and anxieties weigh us down.
The Prayer and Fasting parts of Lent can help us with this. Prayer in its simplest form is conversation with God. That’s all you have to do. You don’t need a prayer book. Just talk to God in your own words. The important part is being in a quiet place and in a quiet state of mind so you can hear God talking back. The Fasting part is perhaps the most misunderstood.
We often hear the word “sacrifice” when talking about Fasting. “What are you going to sacrifice?” The word “sacrifice” means to make something holy. It comes from the word “sacred.” A sacrifice is something you do which results in some thing or some action becoming holy. So, the act of Fasting, or giving something up, should result in something or someone becoming holy.
I had a mentor who once told me, “You are holy.” His words took me back. I did not consider myself holy. He did not say, “You are a holy person.” There’s a difference. Because we are made by God, we are holy. We are always holy. We don’t always do holy things. Sometimes we don’t act holy. But deep down inside, we are holy because God made us holy. The penitential nature of Lent helps us reflect on the things we carry that do not bring out the best of our intrinsic holiness. God’s love founded that holiness. Our human desires and actions tend to lessen the brightness of that love.
Fasting is a way to help us get back on the holiness track by making a sacrifice — making something holy. The making of something holy builds upon the holiness we already have. When you think about making a sacrifice, think beyond giving up “items.” Think about giving up things that dim the light of our God-given holiness like greed, selfishness, anger, jealousy, hatred, and intolerance. We can make a conscious effort to transform our actions into holy actions such as compassion, patience, acceptance and forgiveness.
In the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Lent, Jesus brings three of His closest disciples, Peter, James and John, up to the mountain — a holy place where people felt closer to God. Suddenly Jesus was transfigured into an image of the brightest and whitest light. Then Moses and Elijah appeared. The disciples were astonished. The appearance of these prominent Old Testament authorities validated Jesus’ closeness to God. They wanted to build three tents which would have been like shrines. In their minds Jesus was “shrine-worthy” just like Moses and Elijah. Little did they know Jesus was much more! Suddenly the sky became very dark. The disciples became terrified. The voice (of God) spoke from the cloud saying, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him.” When the cloud faded and the figures of Moses and Elijah disappeared the disciples were all alone with Jesus as they were when they started. The disciples now have to go back to their regular lives but things will never be the same because of what they experienced. They were forever changed because God Himself proclaimed that this ordinary friend of theirs was God’s Son! God also commanded that they listen to Him. Just as the disciples were changed through Jesus’ transfiguration, God is hoping that we will be transformed through a closer relationship with Him by listening to what His Son, Jesus, has to offer us. The disciples did not fully understand all this but accepted on faith. Today, we don’t fully understand either but we have faith that God will guide our way if we listen to Jesus.
During Lent, we pray that we may be transformed into a more intimate relationship with Jesus. We pray that by reflecting on our weakness we may understand how to live a holy life. Like the apostles, we embrace Jesus, God’s Son, as our friend. We pray that we may listen to God more deeply. We pray that God will change our hearts and our lives.
Speak, Lord, in the stillness.
Rick Swenton is a parishioner of St. Pius the Tenth Church in South Yarmouth and is a member of the choir, a cantor and a church music composer. He resides with his wife of 47 years, Gail, in South Dennis.