Moses led the Israelites through the desert for forty years. They were traveling to the Promised Land, which flowed with “milk and honey.” But strong warrior peoples already held that land. During those forty years in the desert, God formed a people that was both prepared to receive the blessing and ready to do battle against the forces that opposed the establishment of His Kingdom. It was a time of purification, instruction, and strengthening.
Jesus spent forty days in the desert in fasting and prayer prior to beginning His public ministry. There He experienced hunger, thirst, and temptation. Scripture tells us that, after this forty days in the desert, Jesus started His ministry “in the power of the Spirit” (Lk 4:14), “from that time Jesus began to preach” (Mt 4:17). The desert experience of prayer and fasting launched Jesus in power into His ministry of proclaiming the Good News, healing the sick, and setting captives free.
Each year, Catholics spend forty days in more intense prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We call this season Lent. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. When we go to Church that day, the priest reminds us of two things: that we will one day return to dust, and that we are stained by sin. So we begin Lent by earnestly considering our need for repentance – and the urgency of the matter, since our time on earth is relatively short.
We need then, and throughout Lent, to fix our gaze on the goal of eternal life with the Father – the life made available to us through the resurrection of Jesus, which we celebrate on Easter. Our entire life is a process of conversion, but Lent is the season of our life in Christ.
The Church earnestly recommends prayer, fasting, and almsgiving as practices appropriate for Lent. These forty days, then, give us a framework for developing our personal devotions. Many parishes offer additional times of prayer, such as communal celebration of the Stations of the Cross, Penance services, and benedictions. Church law requires all Catholics fourteen and older to abstain from meat and foods prepared from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all the Fridays of Lent. Catholics aged eighteen to sixty are bound by law also to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. This means they may only eat two small meals and one larger meal, with no eating in between meals. Parishes also take special opportunities for almsgiving, so that we can contribute time, money, and goods for those in need.
But the Church law and parish programs should only be the beginning for us. We should build upon them to make our own personal response to Christ in Lent. We should change our “plan of life” during Lent to make it more demanding, more intensive, better suited to a time of special preparation and penance. We may decide to increase the amount of time we spend at certain devotions, or we may choose to add certain devotions to our plan. We may also choose to take on a special Lenten mortification – giving something up, such as television, candy, or desserts. And, since Lent is a penitential season, sacramental confession should be an important, perhaps weekly or twice-monthly, part of our spiritual program.
Lent is the time when those who wish to enter the Catholic Church undergo a period of intense training culminating with their Baptism at the Easter Vigil. We should pray and offer sacrifices for these new Catholics as they prepare themselves to receive the sacraments.
It’s easy for us to grow comfortable in our sin. Lent is a wake-up call. As Lent begins, we should do a penetrating evaluation of our lives. Based on what we find, we should set realistic goals for improvement in virtue, and we should find the means to reach those goals. Some people will do well to fast from complaining. Write yourself a reminder and put it on your mirror or someplace where you will be reminded daily. Ask God for His grace every day. Then, every night review in God’s presence how well you’ve done in your struggle. With a plan and a dedicated pursuit, you will reach Easter a little closer to Our Lord, reflecting His light a little more brightly.
Children should also be taught the value of Lent. They too can offer small sacrifices. The mother of St. Therese of Lisieux made “sacrifice beads” for little Therese. Every time Therese made a little sacrifice out of love of Jesus during the day, she would move a bead. At the end of the day she could “see” her love for Christ. Therese attested that this little practice helped her grow in love for Christ. We too can help children grow closer to Christ by teaching them to offer small sacrifices out of love.
Excerpt from the book “The How-To Book of Catholic Devotions” by Mike Aquilina and Regis J. Flaherty