Lent and the Spirit of Sacrifice

Ed: As it is normative to have priests, not laypeople, discussing the importance of Lent, I commissioned Fr. McKenna to do an article for TR.  I present this to you at the beginning of Lent, or Careme, as it is called here in France.  It is just after midnight here, Ash Wednesday, Lent, MMXIV.  Make this one count.
Every year, the season of Lent comes upon us and the offering of sacrifice slaps us quickly in the face.  It provides a shock to our system, which is unaccustomed to the notion of self sacrifice, penance, and deprivation of creature comforts which we take for granted in our everyday lives.  But it is this sacrifice which Our Lord desires from us.  We must mortify our senses in order overcome sin, in order to turn away from our evil inclinations which come to us due to our fallen human nature, and in order to simply be followers of Christ.  “Whosoever doth not carry his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple”[1]
This mortification is so necessary that we cannot be saved without it.  St. Paul tells us “If you live after the flesh, you shall die, but if through the spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live.”[2]  And the Church, as a true Mother, always looking after our greater good, knows this and gives us the opportunities to make these acts of sacrifice in Her penitential seasons, most especially that of Lent.  In fact, the Lenten fact harkens back all the way to the Apostles themselves. 
And if we adopt a true spirit of giving of ourselves to Our Lord, and not just of doing the minimum Holy Mother the Church sets aside to avoid sin, there is no greater season for spiritual growth than that of Lent.  Pope Benedict XIV states this so eloquently in his Constitution, Non Ambigimus: “The observance of Lent is the very badge of the Christian warfare.  By it we prove ourselves not to be enemies of the cross of Christ.  By it we avert the scourges of divine justice.  By it we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help.  Should mankind grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls.  Neither can it be doubted that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and private woe.”[3]
So how can we make the most spiritual progress during this holy season?  How and what shall we sacrifice?  There is no standard answer, as the ability of each person differs.  However, there are some general principles which we may follow in order to make our Lent a truly fruitful one.
First, we must realize that the mandate of the Church to fast, i.e. one main meal and two smaller meals which do not add up to the size of the main meal, with meat only being taken at the main meal, is truly a minimum requirement.  In fact, this fast is very much mitigated from what it had been in earlier days of the Church.  In addition to only taking one true meal, the Lenten fast used to consist of complete abstinence from meat, fish, dairy, eggs, olive oil, and alcohol…a strict fast which is still observed to this day by the Eastern Rites of the Church.  In seeing where we came from in terms of fast, we realize that perhaps we can do more.  A very laudable custom to adopt would be to add part of this to our own Lent.  Perhaps we abstain from meat in all our meals outside of Sundays.  Or maybe we give up a certain dish, such as pasta, which we particularly enjoy.  For the truly hearty, we could even follow the same fast as the East and adopt a truly vegan diet.
We must also realize that we are not composed of flesh alone, but of both body and soul.  As such, we should not only give mortification to our bodies, but also do additional spiritual exercises which will benefit our immortal soul.  A wonderful custom is the daily recitation of the Stations of the Cross, which unite us always with Our Lord’s Passion.  Spiritual reading, which should always be part of our life, should find a prominent place in our daily Lenten exercises.  Daily meditation, an extra Rosary, Holy Hours, attendance at additional Masses, if available, or listening to sermons which can be found on the internet are all great additions which we can make to our Lenten life.
Whatever sacrifices we make, we must always keep in mind the way a Catholic should do penance.  We must be balanced in our approach.  We should challenge ourselves and push ourselves to do a little extra.  It should be a sacrifice.  But we must also not bite off more than we can chew.  One of the most important parts of our Lenten mortification must be the ability to persevere through the entire season and if we take on too much, then human nature will all too often cause us not to cut back a little, but rather fall away from almost all the sacrifices together.  Then we are back to doing just the minimum or, God forbid, no sacrifice at all.  It would be better to offer a little and persevere than to offer a lot and fail to complete our Lent.
Lastly, we must remember that Lent is a season of giving back to God.  And like any good gift, it should be given joyfully.  If our sacrifice is too much and we complain then it bears little fruit.  If our sacrifice causes us to become so irritable that we, in turn, become an additional sacrifice to those around us, it is not a good sacrifice.  For example, a person who gives up coffee but finds it difficult to control their temper shouldn’t give up coffee.  The only person who should know we are sacrificing is God.  It is our gift to Him and it is He who will reward us.
In all, our Lenten offering should come from our hearts, out of love of God, in order to be better servants of Him and to grow closer to Him by overcoming our weak flesh.  If we follow some of these general ideas and principles and remember the overall spirit of Lent, ours will be truly a grace filled season; a season which will help us to make great spiritual progress towards our own salvation.  And by making a good Lent, the joys of Easter will become even more sweeter because we will have been good imitators of His Blessed Mother and the Disciple whom He loved by suffering alongside Our Savior on the Cross.

[1]Luke 14:27
[2]Rom. 8:13
[3]Benedict XIV: Non Ambigimus

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