I gazed at the 10 little faces staring back at me on the computer screen. These Zoom catechism lessons are a bit strange, but we are learning about God and growing in grace.
I say “we” because The Soulful Catholic is the one who is learning the most of all. Preparing for these weekly lessons forces me to dig down into our Catholic faith and learn the most important kernels of truth and the best way to convey them to these darling kids who show up week after week. Most of them are born to Chaldean Catholic immigrant parents who left a war-torn Iraqi homeland.
“Does anyone know what season the Church begins tomorrow?” I ask hopefully. There are blank stares and silence until I hear a parent whisper “Soma,” the Chaldean word for Lent. A little girl pipes up, “Lent!”
“That’s right,” I tell them with a smile. And my mind goes back to childhood when we made our Lenten promises around the family dinner table. Candy, soda, roller-skating — these were a few of the casualties of my youthful experience of the penitential season.
In a culture of excess and at a time when hardly anyone speaks of sacrifice and self-discipline, Lent sneaks up on us. Let’s face it: We’re swimming in a tide that dangles the promise of luxury and pleasure ever before us.
The cross stands as a stark reminder, a sign of contradiction amidst the feverish, and ultimately unsatisfying, pursuit of passing fancies. It’s why we begin and end every prayer with the sign of the cross — to remind us of the mystery of the Trinity and the great love our Lord Jesus Christ showed when he died on the cross to save us all from sin and death.
That sign of the cross should also remind us of Jesus’ words: “Whoever wishes to come after Me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow Me (Matt. 16:24).”
And there you have it: Jesus’ own words tell us we must practice self-denial.
Yes, yes, I’ve seen the memes that we are to give up gossip, malice, greed, etc. And my reaction is — duh! Of course we’re to turn away from sin! That’s why when ashes are marked (or sprinkled during this pandemic) on our heads, we’re told to “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” That means we repent and put to death our selfish ways.
While it’s not uncommon for people to dread Lent (I remember a very nice lady who always gave up smoking this time of year) I say, let’s lean into Lent and see it as a season to grow in love for the Lord and our neighbor. That’s where the self-denial part that’s so integral to spiritual growth comes into play.
But why do we give up stuff for Lent? Well, I did a little research before facing my class of First Communion aspirants and found out the answer to our need to practice self-denial contains four components:
- It helps us make room for God;
- It strengthens our will;
- It prepares us for our mission;
- It increases our compassion for others.
Genius, isn’t it? It’s a pity I didn’t memorize this alongside the Baltimore Catechism lessons of yesteryear but I’m going to commit it to memory now. It’s a perfectly succinct and sensible answer that should guide us in what exactly to give up this Lent.
Is giving up chocolate going to help make room for God in your life, strengthen your will, prepare you for mission and increase your compassion for others? Maybe, maybe not. That all depends on you, but I suspect the answer might be “no” unless you’re going to combine it with some other strategy.
In my own case, I’ve decided that since I spend my free time devouring novels, I’m going to give up a nice chunk of time each day doing spiritual reading. That wouldn’t be a sacrifice for a friend of mine who pretty much only reads spiritual books, but for me, it answers to the four components of why we practice Lenten self-denial.
What about you? What’s your plan? Why not talk it over with your family at dinner tonight?
And don’t worry if you’re reading this after Lent begins. God is always waiting for us to turn to Him and seek His face. Why not turn to Him now?