During Lent, church custom and tradition can help people build a stronger relationship with God. The 40 days — beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending with Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday — are traditionally a time for fasting, prayer and almsgiving, or charity.
Catholics are taught to contemplate the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert, as described in the Gospel of Matthew. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “By the solemn 40 days of Lent, the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.”
Father Bryan P. Babick, Vicar for Divine Worship and the Sacraments for the Diocese of Charleston, said the season could also be tied to another desert journey.
“I look at Lent as kind of a Christian annual Exodus event,” he said. “The Hebrews left Babylon and spent 40 years wandering around in the desert before they got to the Promised Land. We as Christians take the 40 days and await our own promised land, which is Easter and Jesus’ resurrection, the basis of everything we do.”
Father Michael Okere, pastor at Holy Trinity Church in Orangeburg, offers the metaphor of Lent as a time for spiritual weight loss.
“Lent is a time to spiritually lose those things that make us too heavy and not able to see God,” he said. “America is crazy about losing weight and keeping fit physically. During Lent, we should work at keeping spiritually fit. It’s a time to go to Mass, to really focus on the Eucharist, to say the rosary and do other spiritual exercises that bring us closer to God.”
“What are you giving up?” is a question asked many times as the season starts. The custom of giving up chocolate or even smoking has been part of Lent for many years. Although it is not mandatory, many people see it as an opportunity for spiritual growth.
“This spiritual discipline is important for us to exercise from time to time,” said Benedictine Father Karl Roesch, parochial administrator for St. Mary the Virgin Mother Church in Hartsville.
“If we can learn to resist legitimate, good things like candy, then this helps us in our spiritual battle to resist sin,” he said. “We give things up so we can discipline ourselves for the more difficult struggles.”
Father Robert E. Morey, pastor of Holy Family Church on Hilton Head Island, said the idea of sacrifice could be more than just giving up a specific thing.
“If you get in that mode of thought, there are things you can do moment to moment during the day,” he said. “It might mean not ordering a dessert when you’re out at lunch with coworkers. Instead, offer up a prayer. Offer what you are giving up as a prayer or your family members for yourself, and for other people.”
“No meat on Friday” is another Lenten rule that, once again, is tied to the idea of resisting temptation.
According to the Web site American Catholic.org, published by St. Anthony Messenger, church rules regarding abstinence, or not eating meat on certain days, date back to the fourth century. At one time, no meat was eaten on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. In the 12th century, the rule changed to abstinence on Ash Wednesday and on all Fridays, as a reminder that Jesus died on that day.
Meat was the focus of abstinence because people like it and miss it when it’s not on the menu. Early Christian fasting regulations also included milk and eggs. In Eastern rite churches, those foods are still avoided on days of abstinence.
In 1966, American bishops decided to require fasting and abstinence only on Ash Wednesday, the Fridays of Lent and Good Friday. This stemmed from Pope Paul VI’s decision earlier that year to allow conferences of bishops to choose the days of fasting and abstinence they would observe.
Catholics are asked to fast only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. On those days, two small meals are allowed, along with other small snacks, which together do not equal a whole meal.
“Fasting is a great way to get closer to God,” Father Babick said. “It doesn’t have to mean you don’t eat. The idea of fasting during Lent can also mean you don’t have that extra cup of coffee, or have a light meal instead of a large one. When we fast we grow closer to God in our struggles. Our minds turn to other people who experience the same emotion. Jesus suffered for us, so we who are followers of Jesus can maybe give up a small luxury and offer it up in prayer for the souls in purgatory, or the suffering children in Haiti.”
The Lenten season, with its focus on prayer and charity, is a perfect time to begin some new habits.
“It’s not about what we give up, but also what we do,” said Nettie Taylor, director of religious education at St. Joseph Church in Columbia.
Taylor said she encourages people to do extra volunteer work during Lent, and to reach out to new people by visiting the sick, those in nursing homes or others in need. She said the season is also a good time to make a new commitment to read Scripture daily, to take on new prayer rituals, such as learning how to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, and to focus on Jesus’ sacrifice by attending the Stations of the Cross.
Father Roesch said Lent is a good time to make more of an effort to attend Mass, both daily and weekly if possible, and to focus on the weekly readings.
“I say that when we come to Mass, we hear God,” he said. “It may sound like the lector or the words of Isaiah, but it’s really God speaking to us. We achieve the real holiness we’re looking for if we prepare for Mass by doing the readings ahead of time, and maybe even reading the whole chapter of Scripture.”
Many priests also are encouraging families to make a special effort during Lent to have at least one meal together a week. They encourage spending more time together in prayer during the season.
Jane Myers, director of religious education for St. Andrew Church in Clemson, said the sacrament of reconciliation is an important part of observing Lent. Like many parishes around the diocese, St. Andrew offers special reconciliation services during the season. The path to healing and forgiveness will also be the focus of the parish’s Lenten retreat.
“We’re focusing on the ways each of us needs to be reconciled with the Lord, and also with different individuals and groups within our community,” she said.
All of Lent’s spiritual exercises and sacrifices in the end have one purpose, Father Babick said.
“These days give us a chance to turn away from all those things in our spiritual lives that displease God,” he said. “We can remember we’re marching towards something, towards the resurrection.”
Related article: Lenten guidelines