Feb. 13, 2013: A member of the faithful has her forehead marked with black ashes in the sign of the cross during a Mass for Ash Wednesday at Westminster Cathedral in London, which is the Mother Church for Roman Catholics in England and Wales.AP
A churchgoer prepares to receive ashes from Baltimore Archbishop Feb. 13, 2013: William Lori's outstretched hand during an Ash Wednesday mass in Baltimore.AP
Why do Lent?
From the first centuries of Christianity the Church has encouraged a time of preparation for Easter that includes prayer and fasting. As early as 203 A.D., one of the early church fathers, Ireneaus, said that the various forms of fasting before Easter Sunday “did not originate in our own day, but very much earlier, in the time of our forefathers" (Eusebius, History of the Church, V, 24). After Christianity was legalized in 313 A.D., the Church formalized its practice at the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.).
Today, many English speaking Christian communities call this season “Lent.” It comes from the old English “Lencten”, meaning, “spring.” It is a special time for prayer and fasting in keeping with the Bible’s many invitations to live seasons of more intense spiritual work, on the one hand, and times of festivity on the other.
In the Catholic Church, and in many other traditions, the first day of Lent is Ash Wednesday (February 13), and the last day is Holy Saturday (March 30).
Why prayer and fasting?
Maybe in your family, like mine, you were encouraged to “give up” something for Lent. My six siblings and I usually promised God that we would not eat candy, gum, or sweets during the forty-plus days of Lent (40 days plus Sundays). Sometimes I cheated.
When I didn’t, the Easter season was always more joyful. As an adult, I still try to give up something, but I also commit to doing something extra for my spiritual life and for others.
Sometimes I fail miserably. Sometimes I have mediocre success. But the harder I try—out of love for God—the more joyful the Easter season is, just like when we were kids.
The purpose of making a sacrifice out of love for God is not to earn our salvation or to appease God’s anger (Psalm 40:6).
We believe Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was once and for all (Hebrews 9:28). But as St. Paul the Apostle explains, when we unite our suffering to the suffering of Jesus on the cross, God blesses it by giving it great spiritual value. And on a purely human level, I find that fasting purges my mind and reminds me that I shouldn’t always do whatever I feel like in the moment.
Why “Lent Challenge 2013”?
To be honest, this is mostly my way of trying to do better this year than last year. If I make this public, I can’t wimp out. I’m also hoping it helps you. Every day during Lent I will offer you some encouragement or inspiration via Twitter and Facebook as you participate in Lent Challenge 2013.
Our plan is based on three simple principles:
1. We will work on all three areas of our being -- mind, body, and soul -- because God cares about every aspect of who we are, and when one part is out of sync our whole being suffers.
2. In each of the areas we give up something, we will “replace” it with something new.
3. When we feel the sting of our sacrifice, we will try not to complain. Instead we will say “Lord, I offer this up to you out of love for you and for the sake of, (INSERT NAME HERE), a beloved member of your family.” Giving something up, just to do it, or merely as a self-improvement technique, has limited value. But making a sacrifice as an act of love for God and as a prayer for someone else is invaluable.
What follows is an outline I will use as I decide what I will give up and what I will add to my life for Lent. For your purposes, I am including some thoughts that may stir your creativity if you are up for Lent Challenge 2013. The suggestions are purposefully generic. Make them very specific and demanding.
A 46 day plan for spiritual growth in mind, body, and soul:
MIND: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect. (Romans 12:2) Lord, out of love for you, for the next 46 days I will give up …(a percentage of media use, entertainment, movies, novels, etc.) Lord, out of love for you, for the next 46 days I will …(increase spiritual reading, time with family and friends, personal study, professional development, etc.)
BODY: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” (1 Cor. 6: 19-20) Lord, out of love for you, for the next 46 days I will give up …(favorite foods, alcohol, desserts, smoking, excessive sleep, etc.) Lord, out of love for you, for the next 46 days I will …(increase exercise, follow regular sleep schedule, eat healthy, etc.)
SOUL: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness. (Galatians 5:22) Lord, out of love for you, for the next 46 days I will offer up …(bad habits, sinful patterns) Lord, out of love for you, for the next 46 days I will …(increase prayer, repair broken relationships, church attendance, sacramental life)
Father Jonathan Morris is Program Director of "The Catholic Channel" on SiriusXM radio, Channel 129 and a Fox News contributor. He is the author of "God Wants You Happy: From Self-Help to God's Help" and "The Promise: God's Purpose and Plan for When Life Hurts." For more visitwww.FatherJonathan.com. For daily updates on the papal conclave follow him on Twitter (@fatherjonathan) and visit his Facebook page: www.facebook.com/fathermorris.