The radical call of Lent: The meaning of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving

It doesn’t take advanced theological or philosophical training to recognize that our world is broken.  The fallen nature of humanity is painfully obvious to anyone who follows the news.  How can so many people suffer from poverty, environmental degradation, hunger, racism, war, violence, corruption and oppression, all of which are largely the results of choices made by fellow human beings?  What can we do when faced with such bleak global surroundings?  I think you’ll find a good answer in a splotch of black ash that many of us are wearing today. 

March 1 marks Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian penitential season of Lent.  For centuries, Roman Catholics and many Protestants have observed this holy day by receiving ashes on the forehead as a sign of repentance for our sins.  The forty-day season of Lent is traditionally defined by three practices: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. 

Do these practices seem a little old-fashioned or overly pious? Maybe fine for your grandmother, but not for a modern college student?  No way!  Lent is a radical and urgent call to conversion, inviting us to a new way of life.

To me, Lent is all about sacrifice: giving up the comforts and privileges that we enjoy to grow closer to Jesus Christ. He made the ultimate sacrifice in paying the price for our sins by giving up his life on the cross. 

Like many spiritual practices, the three central disciplines of Lent are meant firstly to strengthen our personal spiritual journeys, but their effects do not end with ourselves.  As we are converted by them, we should radiate their goodness and share them with others.  Thus, Lent takes on a communal and social dimension, transforming not only ourselves, but also our communities and the whole world. Let me offer a few suggestions for incorporating the communal aspect into each of the three traditional Lenten practices.

Prayer. Prayer is first and foremost about relationship. Through prayer, we nurture our relationship with God, who loves us. Something we learn through prayer, especially by meditating on the Scriptures and the life and teachings of Jesus, is that God calls us into relationship not only with Himself, but also with our fellow human beings. In his message for Lent 2017, Pope Francis reminded us that “other persons are a gift.” When we pray, therefore, we should pray not only for our own needs, but for the needs and intentions of each other, uniting our prayers with those of the whole human family. Faced with what Pope Francis has called “the globalization of indifference,” prayer helps us build a spirit of universal solidarity that leads to action and meaningful change for the common good.

Fasting. Of the three Lenten disciplines, this may seem the most passé.  But fasting is actually a radical sign of detachment from material things.  We live in a highly consumerist capitalist culture, which constantly bombards us, especially as young people, with the notion that we will be happier when we have more stuff, more money, more power, more fame. When we fast, we say to the world, “no, I don’t need all those shallow pleasures to live well.” When we freely choose to deny ourselves something that we might otherwise enjoy, we profess that our happiness is not based on anything in this world; rather, our hope is fixed on heaven above. We Catholics fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstain from meat on the Fridays of Lent; we also choose something else to give up during Lent. Like receiving the ashes, fasting is a reminder that we are penitent for our sins and dependent on God for our salvation.  Though we live in what Pope Francis has called “the throwaway culture” in which everything, even human lives, are easily discarded, fasting teaches us to appreciate what we have and whom we have in our lives. 

Almsgiving. This Lenten practice clearly links us to one another. During this holy season, the Church calls us to do acts of charity.  We can give our time, energy and resources to serving and empowering the needy, the poor and homeless people in our communities, as well as donate to organizations that serve marginalized groups.  At a time when our society seems extremely divided, such sacrificial giving can do much good to rebuild the bonds that unite us.

I invite you to take up these ancient disciplines anew as effective ways of building a “culture of encounter.”  Drawing again from the Holy Father’s 2017 Lenten message, “Lent is a favorable season for opening the doors to all those in need and recognizing in them the face of Christ.”  May prayer, fasting and almsgiving strengthen us in solidarity and love with those around us.  And may the solemn fast of Lent help us prepare for the joyful feast of Easter.

David Vascones ’18 is a history and Spanish double major from Queens, N.Y.  He lives in Wood.