Lenten customs are designed to help us enter into this holy season and grow in discipline and service. The word Lent means “springtime,” a time of new life. Here are ten common Lenten practices by which we can draw closer to God, experience interior conversion and renew our spiritual lives.
Ashes — Ashes are an ancient symbol of repentance. References to sackcloth and ashes can be found often in the Old Testament. Ashes remind us that we won’t live forever (“remember that you are dust”), prompting us to reflect on our lives and our need for God’s mercy and to ponder what is important in the long run (eternal life with God) and what is only temporary (many of our day-to-day desires and challenges). To prepare well for the day we physically die, we must die now to sin and rise to new life in Christ.
Fasting and Giving Something Up — Often this is our first impression or thought of Lent, and each year we have the big question of what to give up.
Food — All it takes is a quick look at any magazine rack to see that this nation is obsessed with food — with eating more and tastier, and with eating less. Fasting for spiritual reasons is different from dieting for health and weight loss. Most of us should fast from particular food-favorites throughout Lent as well as from meat on Fridays. By eliminating sweets, coffee, soda, alcohol or whatever other food has a grip on us, and by turning to God every time we are tempted by these foods, we can gain a real sense of God’s grace and how close He is to us. Our attachment to food can be complicated. Lent is a great time to begin, with God’s help, to uncomplicate it.
Fasting (eating less food) is one of the most ancient practices of Lent — there is a deep wisdom to fasting that we’ll only understand if we do it just because it will help us draw closer to God. Lenten fasting is a traditional way to seek to imitate Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the desert.
Changing Behaviors and Attitudes — All of us have things in our lives that come between us and God, and we may or may not realize it. This Lent, if we go somewhere quiet and humbly ask God, “Lord, what do you want me to give up?” He will answer. It may be a food, or a television show, or a friend or an attitude or habit. Giving it up will make a significant and positive difference in our spiritual lives.
Prayer — Give more time to prayer during Lent. Try different things — weekday Mass; spiritual reading from the saints; Lenten prayer Web sites (for example, www/creighton.edu/ CollaborativeMinistry/ Lent) or books of prayers; retreats and days of reflection; meditating/pondering the Gospels, especially the Passion; quiet listening and pouring out your heart to God. The rosary or other common prayers may help us reflect or talk with God. A picture of Christ or Mary can help our prayer, as can the Stations of the Cross. Aim for simplicity and love in your Lenten prayer.
Almsgiving — Besides food, money is a big complication for many people. Try giving a specific percentage of your Lenten income this year, or decide now on a specific amount to give, and then choose a charity or your parish as the recipient. As you write the check or hand over the bills, ask God to take and use the money for His will.
Penance — Lent is the primary time for celebrating the sacrament of penance/reconciliation. Lent is a season for renewal, and what better way to begin than to have our sins forgiven! Early Christian teachers are said to have called this sacrament a second-baptism, because it should enable us to start again to live the baptismal life to its fullest. Many parishes provide brochures to help with our examination of conscience, or we can always use the Ten Commandments.
Stations of the Cross — Praying and pondering the Stations of the Cross either privately or publicly can be a way of remembering Jesus’ sufferings and a way to grow in appreciation of his sacrifice. Toward the end of Lent, the liturgical readings also will recall Christ’s Passion. There are many booklets available at parishes and religious bookstores for this devotional practice. Some parish youth and/or adult groups stage live Stations of the Cross. It is a devotion that can help make Jesus’ Passion more “real” for us.
Burying the Alleluia — The word “Alleluia” is heard throughout the Christian world, a Greek and Latin form of the Hebrew word “Hallelujah,” meaning “praise the Lord.” Because this word is particularly associated with Easter, the custom developed to intentionally eliminate it from the liturgies of Lent, “sort of a verbal fast” according to one author. The idea is to create a sense of anticipation and greater joy when this familiar word of praise returns at Easter. At Easter, we give it no rest at all, repeating it again and again in celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.
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This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of The Catholic Observer (www.iobserve.org), official newspaper of the Diocese of Springfield, Mass.