I remember very distinctly the first time I decided to participate in a Lenten fast. It was long before I converted to Catholicism and I didn't know much at all about Lent. Easter, yes, Lent, no. I recall sitting in my high school Phys Ed + Drivers Ed class on a Fat Tuesday and overhearing a friend talking about how she'd lost around 15 pounds the previous year thanks to giving up cheese and chocolate (two things that were, and still are, very near and dear to my heart) for Lent. I remember thinking two things:
1. Why in the world would someone willingly give up eating chocolate?
2. I had no idea you're supposed to try to lose weight before Easter, weird. (I honestly thought this considering many of those who said they also gave something up for Lent were doing it to shed some pounds. Who knew?)
I decided to investigate a little further and while I don't recall exactly how she explained it to me, although I'm positive it had nothing to do with making a sacrifice in remembrance of Jesus' suffering or preparing to celebrate the resurrection of Christ, whatever she did say convinced me to give it a shot.
I would give up eating chocolate until Easter Sunday! Huzzah!
I wouldn't do it to lose weight (I was pretty gangly in high school) or because I thought I ate too much of it and could use the discipline (which I totally did) but just to see if I could do it. It was 100% a personal challenge... you know one of those, if she can do it I can do it kind of decisions. It was all about me. Proving something to myself or, more likely, being able to say, "Hey everyone, look at me giving up chocolate for Lent. It's such a huge struggle. Do you have the highest respect for me as I take on this super selfless decision?"
Oy, high school.
Needless to say that first attempt at fasting from something was pretty pathetic (I had a chocolate instant breakfast drink the next morning followed by an Andes mint before remembering I had, so selflessly, given up the treat) as were the many years of ill-planned and ill-performed fasts that followed but I can basically sum them all up by saying I didn't truly understand the point or purpose of a Lenten fast until I converted.
It turns out fasting during Lent is not part of a 21day-fix (or 40, rather) like so many people make it out to be. Look at me all learned and stuff.
During my conversion process I started to understand and appreciate the actual purpose of a Lenten sacrifice. Now I'm no Catholic scholar, and still see myself as a rookie in the papacy ball game, but here's what I've learned thus far. It's not about me doing something just to say I did it. It's not an excuse to finally give up that vice I've been meaning to cut out of my life. It's definitely not a time to wave my sacrifice around like grade-school show and tell. No, no, no.
It's about making a true sacrifice, big or small, that helps build my relationship with God, and often times also with family. It's about recognizing and honoring the unfathomable sacrifice that God made in sending His Son to die for my sins, and in turn Jesus' sacrifice of giving his life. It's a physical representation of a spiritual sacrifice emulating Christ's 40 days in the desert. It's about doing something, intentionally and whole-heartedly, that allows me to prepare for and celebrate the miracle of Christ's resurrection. I now find myself incredibly inspired and encouraged each year as Ash Wednesday rolls around. I also find myself shaking my head at how trivial I made Lent out to be way back when.
Catholic or not, the personal and spiritual journey that Lent allows you to endure is one that can be, if you let it, truly life changing. Maybe you do decide to give up your favorite vice or treat. If that kind of personal sacrifice is a real struggle for you and something that sends you into a deeper state of prayer, that's wonderful. If you decide to turn off the TV or disconnect from social media so that you can focus your attention more closely on creating a closer bond to your children and husband, that's awesome. If you decide to give up any additional spending other than food and bare necessities to better appreciate what you've been blessed with, that's fantastic. If you decide to walk to work or daily mass as your way of honoring Jesus' journey in the desert, bravo. Whether it's tiny or extreme, make it more than just something to do. Make it something you rely on God to get through. Turn to prayer and reflection whenever temptation rears it's ugly head. When you find yourself struggling, offer it up.
Offer it up. A foreign concept to many, but a common Catholic phrase (so I've learned after being a part of a number of Catholic mama Facebook groups). The most clear and concise definition as I understand it is to offer your suffering to God as a sacrifice. Most of the time there is an intention behind your offering. For example, when you feel the twinge of hunger during your Ash Wednesday fast, you might offer your hunger pains as a sacrifice to feed those who are without food. A different and not necessarily Lent-related offering is one I heard from a dear friend of mine who once spoke of offering up the pain of miscarriage as a sacrifice to change the hearts of those considering abortion. You can also offer up a sacrifice without intention, asking God to take your honorable suffering and use it for His own Will. Putting a focus or intention with your suffering is a way to honor how Christ offered up his own suffering on the cross to save all our souls.
Along with offering up your suffering Lent is also a time to enhance your prayer life and reliance on the Lord in every aspect of your life...
The kids are driving me crazy and I'm having a really hard time remembering to speak to them in a calm, loving voice. Help me seek out peace and patience before I lash out in irritation or anger.
I've been craving a soda all day and feel I might slip up on my sacrifice. Lord, help me to remember the sacrifice YOU made for me when I feel temptation's pull.
I know I said I would volunteer at the women's shelter once a week but I just don't feel like going right now. I know I'm feeling selfish about my time and would rather be doing something for pleasure. Help me remember that others aren't able to just sit in their warm homes and snack all day, and my small sacrifice can show the love of Christ to someone who really needs it.
When it gets hard, and it will, pray. Ask the Lord for guidance. Offer up your sacrifices.
I realize now that my original introduction to Lent is probably the norm in pop culture today. Ninety percent of the time when someone talks about Lent they are usually saying, "So what are you giving up for Lent this year?" It doesn't have to be giving something up. In fact, some of the more challenging and positively life changing sacrifices include adding something to your routine.
- Waking up before the kids so you can spend time in prayer before your day begins.
- Striving to do one creative or faith-based activity with the kids each day instead of setting them in front of the TV for an hour.
- Making sure the dishes are clean and out of the sink every night before bed.
- Giving alms to the poor once a week/month as a way of sharing God's love with the world.
If you're looking for inspiration you can find more ideas like these from some of my favorite mama bloggers (who just so happened to be Catholic). They are far wiser and far more poignant than I so I definitely recommend stopping by their blogs.
Catholic All Year
Tales from the Mommy Trenches
Do Small Things With Love
AND, if you want to join me (and a handful of other mamas) in a group scripture study, I recommend getting Waiting in the Word, A Mother's Lenten Journey. It's never too late to join, I'm loving it thus far!