Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving for many Christians around the world. Why do we pray, fast, and give alms?
First, in the midst of a world seeking ever increasing novelties of pleasure, these time-honored Lenten penances invite us to discipline ourselves. The Church builds upon the foundation of both scripture and tradition in emphasizing these three forms of penance. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament mention them: Tobit 12:8 highlights the goodness of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, while Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6 expounds upon how one should carry out these actions in greater detail. For all three practices, Jesus exhorts his listeners not to display their actions ostentatiously to others, but to do these penances in secret. We should not focus on rewards in this life but in the next. The Father, who sees all things, even the actions we hide from others, will repay us. The preeminence of these forms of penance continues throughout the history of the Church, and many saints have written about them.
While God will bless us for our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, there are also other reasons to keep these Lenten practices. The Catechism of the Catholic Church spells out their purpose in paragraph 1434. Although prayer, fasting, and almsgiving can be acts of self-discipline, they are not exclusively focused on the self but also call us to personal transformation in our interactions with the surrounding community. In his Inferno, Dante portrays Satan as frozen in ice at the center of hell. Satan has made his irrevocable choice against God, and he cannot alter his decision. Thanks be to God, we still have the opportunity to change. Each Lenten practice invites us to conversion in relationship: Prayer, in relation to God; fasting, in relation to oneself; and almsgiving, in relation to others.
You might say: These explanations are honorable but are fairly abstract. How can I make my penances my own? Offer a specific intention for your actions. Pope Francis gives us an example: This year, he has called for an Ash Wednesday fast for world peace. This Lent, consider presenting your penances to God for a precise intention that resonates more personally with you. Offer your prayers for a friend looking for a job, a coworker going through a breakup, or a family member who is sick. You can even be creative in combining penances. Fast from chocolate not just because you might lose weight but because you can give what you would spend on chocolate to provide meals at the local homeless shelter.
The Church has recommended the time-tested methods of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to help us grow. Take ownership of your penances not just on Ash Wednesday but for all of Lent. Ask yourself why you are praying, fasting, and giving alms. What intention will you offer for your Lenten penances?
Br. Luke Maria Lee, O.P. | Meet the Brothers in Formation HERE