Why do we do that? A primer on the season

Categories: Around the Diocese,lent

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By Brenda Kresky
For The Visitor

1. What is Lent?
Lent is the season of preparation before Easter. Ash Wednesday — Feb. 18 this year — marks the beginning of the season of Lent, which begins 40 days prior to Easter (Sundays are not included in the count). As Catholics, we renew our baptismal promises by participating in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving during this season. It is a time that challenges us to hear God’s call and seek God’s guidance in our lives.

2. Why do we receive ashes on Ash Wednesday?
The blessing and distribution of ashes indicate the beginning of the season of Lent. These ashes have a twofold sign. First, we are reminded of our own death, that it is only through God that we have life. This is a reminder of our own vulnerability and need for forgiveness and redemption. Second, we publicly embrace the Lenten discipline, our intention to die to our worldly desires and live even more in Christ’s image. We are signed with the cross, which always represents Jesus dying on the cross, saying I believe in Christ. It is a public expression that says I am sorry for my sins. We use ashes as an outward sign of an inward posture of repentance.

3. Why do we focus on prayer, fasting and almsgiving?
This threefold spiritual discipline during Lent calls us to conversion and to deepen our life in Christ. These three practices help us to move out of ourselves and renew our efforts to live out the Gospel in concrete ways. Prayer nourishes our souls and strengthens our relationship with God. Fasting teaches us about suffering sacrifice. Almsgiving, or works of service, enlarge our hearts as we serve the needs of others and recognize that all we have is a gift from God.

4. Why can’t we eat meat on Fridays?
The practice of abstaining from meat on Friday is one of the oldest traditions in the Catholic Church, and there are lots of different theories about its origins. It is one way to commemorate the self-sacrifice of Christ who offered himself for us on the cross on Good Friday. This discipline of sacrifice reminds us to be simple and selfless. Meat is sometimes associated with celebrations and feasts, such as Thanksgiving turkey, Easter ham, Fourth of July burgers and brats, etc. The tenor of Fridays during Lent is meant to be particularly penitential. (See page 10 for Lenten penitential regulations.)

5. Do I really have to give up something for all of Lent?
The purpose of fasting is to turn our attention to both God and others. Although we commonly think of fasting as giving up food, fasting can take many forms. Fasting can be holding back from unnecessary buying, accumulating and wasting, or excessive TV viewing, video game playing, etc. It also may entail giving up negative behaviors such as gossiping, critical comments, bullying, self-sabotage, comparing people to other people, etc. Fasting can be any form of breaking from destructive patterns of life, freeing us to grow healthier in our thoughts and actions.

6. What is almsgiving?
Simply put, alms are money or goods given to those in need as an act of charity. We are called to use our wealth, gifts, time and talents to create a world that mirrors the vision that Jesus proclaimed. This expression of faith is done out of a true love for God. When we invest in others what God has given to us we can trust that the results will make a difference both now and for eternity. Almsgiving is a “giving to God” and not mere philanthropy. It demands sacrificial giving, not just giving from our excess.

7. Why do I see so much purple at church?
The Scriptures tell us that a purple garment was placed on Jesus during his passion as a mockery of royalty. Purple can symbolize royalty, but it also represents pain and suffering, and therefore it is an appropriate color during this penitential season as we focus on our own sinfulness. The dark color of purple during Lent will give way to white for Easter, symbolizing the celebration of Christ’s victory over sin.

8. Why does the church encourage people to receive the sacrament of reconciliation during Lent?
Lent, by its nature, is a time to reflect on our own sinfulness and repent. In the sacrament of reconciliation, we have the opportunity to step back and examine our conscience, to honestly assess how we have failed to be the best person God wants us to be. Participating in this sacrament not only embraces our desire to “cleanse” ourselves but it also is a commitment to wanting to start anew. The priceless gift of God’s mercy can play an important part in being better able to celebrate the joy of Christ’s resurrection at Easter.

9. Who are these catechumens and candidates I sometimes hear about at Mass?
Catechumens and candidates are a group of people who are preparing to become members of the Catholic Church at the celebration of the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday evening. Catechumens are those who have never been baptized. At the Rite of Election (the first Sunday after Ash Wednesday), the bishop welcomes the catechumens, and they become the Elect. Candidates are those that have been baptized in another Christian faith tradition and are seeking full communion with the Catholic Church.

10. What are some ways I can make Lent more meaningful this year?
The Holy Spirit should guide personal Lenten practices. Before Lent begins, take some time to pray about where you are being invited to journey with God and others. This season calls us to look at things that are keeping us away from God, sorting through what works and doesn’t work in our lives. As you embark on your Lenten spiritual journey, ask yourself: Where do I need to shine God’s light in my own life or in the life of others? How can the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving make a difference? How will I put them into practice this Lenten season?

Brenda Kresky is consultant for faith formation for Catholic Education Ministries of the Diocese of St. Cloud.