Q. Many people choose to “give something up” for Lent. Am I required to do this?
A. The 40 days of Lent span from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, excluding Sundays. During this time, we focus on our relationship with God, as we reflect upon the Christ’s saving work for us in the Paschal Mystery, the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ.
The season of Lent is a season of conversion. All baptized Christians are converted in the Sacrament of Baptism as Original Sin is washed away and they receive a share of God’s life within them. However, this is not the end of the story.
Our Heavenly Father loves us so dearly and intimately that he, like any good father, only wants what is truly best for his children. We are happy when we are free; when we are not a slave of our sins; when we are doing God’s will. Our Father desires our happiness and beatitude, and this happens when our hearts reflect the heart of Jesus perfectly. This lifelong endeavor of conversion requires openness and docility to the work of the Holy Spirit.
Conversion begins with the humble recognition that we, indeed, are sinners, completely dependent upon God for his mercy and grace, but also that we are God’s children, who are the recipients of his abundant blessings. In practice, this means that we have to be honest with ourselves that there are things in our lives that need to change. There are sins that we have turned into idols, relationships with people that need to be healed, and deeper prayer that is to be pursued. But, conversion is not so much what we do, but allowing God to do his work within us.
True conversion of heart should be the lens by which see the season of Lent. If conversion is not our goal, then we have missed the entire purpose of the season.
“Giving something up for Lent” is a commendable practice if it is done for the right motive. The three traditional penitential acts during Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Giving something up for the 40-day duration is a means of fasting. Fasting reminds us that we are made for more than bodily pleasures, comforts, and sense gratifications. These are good things and part of our human nature, but they can become tyrants if our wills allow these things to take hold of us. God has made us for greater things than bodily goods.
Fasting can work in union with almsgiving. The money that we save by fasting from sweets, alcohol, or pop could be saved and given to the poor. And as we give that money to the poor, we see the fruit of our sacrifice.
Keeping in mind that Lent is about the conversion of our hearts, we should not give something up for Lent if it will make us more self-absorbed. Sometimes the pursuit of keeping our Lenten resolutions can become an end in itself and distracts us from what the Lord wants to do in us during this holy season.
The Catholic Church does not require us to give something up for Lent beyond her regulations of fasting and abstinence. The Church through Canon Law requires that “abstinence from eating meat or another food according to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops is to be observed on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities; abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on the Friday of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (Canon 1251). All Catholics 14 and older are bound to this abstinence. On the Fridays outside of Lent the U.S. bishops conference received permission from the Holy See for Catholics in the U.S. to substitute a penitential or charitable practice of their own choosing.
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