The Rover sets out to find answers to the most pressing of Lenten questions
What are you giving up for Lent?
This is a question you may hear or ask more than a few times in the coming weeks. Lent, the 40-days-long liturgical season leading up the Easter Triduum, has officially begun, and with this season comes a host of traditions and practices.
But why do we give things up for Lent? And why, for that matter, does the Church give us the season of Lent at all? The Rover spoke with Father Pete McCormick, CSC, Director of Campus Ministry, and Timothy O’Malley, Professor of Theology and Director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, to learn more about this ancient season.
From a historical perspective, Lent first emerged out of the early Church’s preparation of catechumens—those getting ready to receive the sacrament of baptism—for full entrance into the Church during the Easter season.
“Lent, historically, developed as a season dedicated to the final preparation of catechumens within the Church,” O’Malley explained. “It was a season of initiation in which the catechumens entered into a more intensive spiritual, theological, and liturgical formation. As Lent developed, it became a season for all Christians to prepare to celebrate the risen Lord in Easter. One could see Lent as a time to enter into the desert with Christ, to practice fasting, almsgiving, and prayer, and thus to form one in a more worshipful disposition.”
For those preparing to enter the Church, and for those already initiated, Lent is a time of repentance and renewal as our hearts are made ready for the miracle of Easter. As McCormick put it, “Lent is the season of repentance. It is also a time to be renewed in spirit. For Catholics, Lent is an annual time of preparation to renew our baptismal vows and welcome new members who are preparing to make their baptismal vows for the first time.”
How does this spiritual preparation take place? There are many practices associated with Lent, but none is more common than the commitment to giving something up for the 40 day period. This act of fasting is modeled in part on Jesus’ own 40 days of fasting and prayer in the desert. A Lenten fast can take shape in many ways, but as O’Malley explained, it must always actively orient us toward spiritual enrichment.
“Giving things up around Lent is in fact part of a broader tradition of asceticism, specifically fasting, in the Church,” O’Malley told the Rover. “Of course, this giving up of things is often misinterpreted. For example, giving up chocolate is fine, but the goal of Lenten fasting is not just denying oneself something that you’ll really enjoy at Easter. Rather, it is giving up things that enable one to pray more deeply; to place the risen Lord at the center of one’s existence.”
Many people struggle when faced with the task of giving something up for Lent and find it difficult to choose the right item, activity, or experience to fast from, but understanding what the act of fasting is meant to bring about in us can make this process easier.
“Before Lent, I would ask myself what is it that is keeping me from love of God and neighbor,” suggested O’Malley. “Where have I sinned either through omission or commission? Perhaps in concert with a spiritual director, I would develop a program that includes prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Spend 15 minutes each day in prayer reading the Gospel of the day. Fast from something that keeps one away from prayer, away from authentic acts of merciful love. And give alms—both money (for example if you fast from coffee, give the money away) and time. Spend time especially with the poor, those on the margins of our social life.”
Recently, Pope Francis issued his annual statement to the Church looking forward to Lent, in which he encouraged the faithful to fast from indifference toward others. As the Holy Father explained, when we are indifferent toward the needs of those around us, “We forget about others … we are unconcerned with their problems, their sufferings and the injustices they endure … Our heart grows cold.” However, Lenten acts of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving can help to combat this tendency, as, in Pope Francis’ words, “the love of God breaks through that fatal withdrawal into ourselves which is indifference.”
Among the myriad opportunities for spiritual engagement this Lent, one place to start, especially in this Year of Mercy, is the confessional.
“Lent is a great time to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation,” McCormick explained. “Lent, in the liturgical year, is known as a penitential season. As Catholics, we are asked to give up various items or habits and commit to activities that bring us closer to God and our community. Confession is a natural step to cleanse ourselves from sin and start anew with a renewed focus on Christ.”
Michael Infantine is a senior PLS major with minors in theology and reciting rap lyrics in the shower. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.