Lent comes around every year. The season has a reputation
for being a tough time. Three long-standing traditions of
Catholic Lenten observance are penance, fasting (and abstinence
or not eating meat on Fridays) and giving money to the poor.
In one word, Lent is about fastingin three different
This season includes the 40 weekdays between Ash
Wednesday (its beginning) and Holy Saturday. The name of the
season comes from the Anglo-Saxon word which refers to the
lengthening of the days in the springtime.
As far back as second grade in Catholic school,
I remember getting ready for the season of Lent. On Ash Wednesday,
the teacher asked each of us to tell the class what we were
"giving up for Lent." Giving something up for Lent seemed
very important, so we all knew that we wanted to have something
impressive to say when it was our turn.
A lot of my classmates were giving up or "fasting"
from candy or chocolate. I too opted to eat no candy for those
long, long days. A few very impressive folks chose to give
up TV for the whole 40 days!
When I entered high school, the idea of giving something
up for Lent began to raise questions in my mindas it
might in yours. Questions like "What difference does it make
to God whether I eat candy?" plus others about the benefits
of my Lenten choices began to surface inside me.
In this Youth Update, we will explore the
custom of fasting in Lent, not so much as saying no to "stuff"
but as saying yes to the feast of promise that is Easter.
Give It Up
Let's look at these three traditional disciplines
of Lent: prayer, giving money to the poor (almsgiving) and
fasting (i.e., "giving something up"). The question, "What
are you giving up for Lent?", may be heard in your household
or in the homily at Mass.
What the Church is inviting you to consider with
this question is to look hard at your life to see how you
could live with less. What can you let go of or eliminate
that will bring you closer to God's Kingdom?
Perhaps you have wondered, as I did, what giving
up chocolate, desserts or TV really did to honor God. Fasting
in Lent really needs to be different from other ways that
you may "give something up."
You could pass up dessert simply because you've
had enough to eat or you are on a diet. That's not the Lenten
attitude or focus. If you give up desserts for the whole season
of Lent, you want to make it an active or positive choice,
not simply a no or a deprivation. Make that action into an
offering to God rather than simply an act of self-improvement.
When you fast in Lent, you are also invited to think
more about those people whose many needs weas individuals,
as a parish or as a Churchmay ignore. How many people
your own age go to bed each night without having a mealforget
about dessertthat day? How many young people in the
world fill their days with work simply so that their family
may get by and will never have the free time or the money
to enjoy TV? This is not to make you feel guilty but to start
The action of fasting is to create an inner hunger.
That hunger can take you in one of two directions: 1) it can
eliminate the desire for the thing you have given up (breaking
a bad habit such as using bad language or fighting with your
younger sibling) or 2) it can create a yearning (a stronger
desire for the goodness, much like imagining the taste of
that first bite of chocolate).
Either of these can bring you closer to God. The
important thing is not so much where the fasting leads you
but that you set out wanting to go where it may lead you.
Another important question to consider when you
fast is "To what are you saying yes?" Author Stephen Covey
states simply, "It's easier to say no when there is a deeper
For instance, you may say no to TV, but you are
also saying yes to homeworkhomework done well. Another
yes you may want to include in your Lenten fast is to choose
to live more simply.
Simplicity means choosing to pare down, to live
with less. While this idea has gotten a lot of attention lately
on the talk shows and in the news, the Christian tradition
has always called its followers to take a long look at what
is really needed and to choose to live with less of what we
This call to simplicity has led some people to make
choices that protect the earth. They cut down their use of
natural resources (for example, driving less, doing things
that take less electricity), while others have chosen to go
through their closets and give what they don't need to the
Simplicity is hard when there are so many messages
proclaiming "You can have it all." You are also told that
the road to happiness and success is paved with purchases
Simplicity may be as basic as looking around and
seeing that you are not deciding what you need. You're allowing
other pressures to influence your decisions. Depending on
where you live and go to school, you may have a different
ideathan commercials doof what you need.
For everyone, the basics of life are food, clothing
and shelter. For some, however, food may include three courses
each meal, while for others it may be one basic meal and two
lighter meals. For some, clothing may mean never wearing anything
that is not in style, while others may wear all their clothing
until it is completely worn out.
The gospel call is to constantly look at your possessions
to distinguish needs from wants. The gospel also calls you
to look beyond yourself to see the comparison between your
lifestyle and that of those beyond your school or neighborhood.
Jesus' response to the man who asked, "Who is my
neighbor?" was to tell the story of the Good Samaritan (see
Luke 10:25-37). What Jesus was really saying is that everyone
in the world is your neighbor.
Saying a Big Yes
Lent invites the crucial choice to take that look
at your life and your needs. It's not easy but, when you do
it well, you will be changed. You may find also in your fasting
that you become more aware of others throughout the world.
When you give something up, you can begin to feel
for those who lack basic needs. Whether what you are giving
up is big or small, you can begin to see a glimpse of the
lives of those people in the world who go without the basics
day after day.
Now that you have chosen to simplify your life,
if only during Lent, you may find yourself thinking about
others who may feel the hunger you feel. You might connect
with others at your parish who have also been fasting. You
might start noticing who else at school is doing without the
things you have chosen to give up. You might even start imagining
those people in the world who never get to have what it is
you are doing without for 40 days.
You may also find yourself noticing people in your
everyday life that you might not have noticed otherwise. You
may start to notice the homeless person you pass on the street
or the kid at school who wears the same things day after day,
the people who are overlooked because they don't have what
This isn't magic but reality. Call it God's gift
to those who fast. You might even find that your heart wants
you to reach out to these people and do something for themagain,
The Church has a tradition in this regard, a tradition
that the poor are to be the people we think of first. This
is sometimes called the "preferential option for the poor."
Applying this option to your Lent, you may think
it's great to be saving all the money you would have spent
on chocolate or movies or whatever you now have given up.
The Church's challenge is not only that your fasting is a
good thing but also that you give preferential treatment to
those in need.
You may consider counting up the money you saved
and making that into an additional offering to Operation Rice
Bowl (see "What We Do" at www.catholicrelief.org)
or your local Catholic Worker House or some other group that
serves people in need.
Yes to the Feast
Whatever fast you choose during Lent will help you
celebrate the richness of Easter in a more complete way. Of
this, you can be confident.
Have you ever prepared for a special meal or your
favorite dinner by eating less at lunch? You were hoping,
probably, to be able to enjoy with gusto the feast awaiting
you that evening. You were preparing for the special feast
in the same way that the Church prepares for Easter.
I had a friend in high school who had a rule about
going to concerts. For two days before the concert, he would
not play any music by the group he was going to see. That
way, if the artist played the song in concert, it would seem
fresh all over again. He was fasting to prepare for the feast
of the concert.
If you choose to fast from something really important
or special to you, you can create a similar, even better,
yearning, a stronger appreciation and sense of thankfulness
to God. Maybe there's something in your life that you simply
take for granted. By fasting from it for 40 days, you can
experience it fresh again on Easter.
This experience of newness is like Easter. Whether
it is a new awareness of your needs and the needs of others,
a new positive habit to replace an old one or a new outlook
on something that has grown familiar, the Easter feast after
the Lent fast will sharpen your senses and renew your perspectiveon
life, on faith and on the feast of Easter.
Riches Poured Out
The heart of our Catholic faith is Easter. On Easter
we celebrate a very simple truth that has changed the world.
Jesus died and was raised from the dead. He was given new
life because he offered his life for us. Jesus was not just
given back his life but was given new life. It is a life unlike
the life heand wehave known before.
We talk about our own resurrectionbeing raised
from the deadand hope to go to heaven. We imagine heaven
as a banquet hall, a peace- and joy-filled place, a place
where all our hopes and dreams come true.
Our celebration of Easter proclaims our hope in
God's desire to take what is offered and change it into a
new, overwhelming gift. When we celebrate Easter, we celebrate
God's tremendous gift of love to us.
We also proclaim our hope that anything, no matter
how small or big, that we offer to God is returned to us a
hundred times over. This is the mystery we celebrate at Masson
Easter but also every time we participate. Everything that
we offer to God is returned to us as new and abundantlike
the new and abundant life promised us through Jesus' dying
and rising from the dead.
When you start to view Lent in this way and begin
to see Easter for what it really is, you can see how your
giving up chocolate is not simply to lessen the demand for
chocolate in the world. You can offer this as a sacrifice
to God so that God can take your offering with Jesus' offering
on the cross and return it to you with new life.
I'm not talking about God giving you a river of
chocolate to swim in. You might notice you are more alive
to your connections with others around you or your connection
to the poor. You might notice your new life as a peace and
joy about living with less. You might notice your new life
as a deeper appreciation for the gifts you have in your life.
The things you might have taken for granted before, you might
now see as gifts.
Lent and Easter are celebrated every year. Because
they come around so often, you might also take them for granted
by not paying attention to them.
By keeping the Lenten customs each year and really
looking forward to and celebrating Easter, you are preparing
for the final feast, the feast of heaven. In many ways, our
whole lives are the Lent during which we train for the Easter
of heaven and our life with God.
As you begin this year's season of Lent, try to
think about how your fast is not just giving up something
for these 40 days. It is an offering to God and an offering
to the world through the poor, through your own growth and
through the new life which God will give back to you both
during the Easter season (the 50 days following Easter Sunday)
and the new life we are promised in heaven.
Deshan Silva (15), Audr—a Glenn (15) and
Clarence Glenn (14), three of the Confirmation candidates
at St. Monica-St. George Parish in Cincinnati, Ohio, met over
pizza to consider this issue of fasting! Ngozi Ndulue, their
catechist, also joined the discussion.