Our Lenten Penance

I guess I should have warned you the day before Ash Wednesday, but, better late than never…

Anyway, just to alert you, every Friday of Lent I have spies at all the street carts in downtown Manhattan to take the names of any Catholic buying a hot dog. Those names will then be turned into your parish priests for immediate punishment.

Seriously, folks, but our Lenten penance is…well, serious.

Mortification is, in fact, an essential part of the teaching of Jesus. So, some sort of self-denial should always be part of our spiritual regimen. To help remind us of this, the Church requires it during Lent.

Old-timers scoff at how little the Church requires of us anymore. They can recall how we Catholics used to have to abstain from meat every Friday, not just on the six Fridays of Lent; they can remember how we had to abstain from all food for three hours before Holy Communion (now it’s a measly hour for those who even remember), and how the eves of Holy Days, and other days each of the four seasons called Ember Days, were also times of fast (two light meals, one main meal, no eating between meals) and abstinence (no meat).

They snicker at us slouchers of today, who simply have to abstain on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent, and fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday…and still often forget to, or whine about it and ask for "dispensations.Ó

These veterans worry that we’ve neglected an essential part of our faith: to do penance.

Jesus doesn’t really tell us what we should exactly do for penance—although He does extol fasting, cutting down seriously on food—but He sure insists that we undergo some self-sacrifice.

Yes, it may be eating less, giving up certain foods, or doing laudable acts we find tough.

All you need to do is look at me to conclude that I’m hardly an expert in fasting. But, believe me, I highly appreciate its value, take it seriously in Lent, and realize that it is a big boost to my spiritual (and physical) health.

Why does Jesus instruct us to fast? Why does the Church expect some fasting— however light the current discipline is—and encourage self-denial, especially in Lent?

For one, when we give up something we enjoy, especially over an extended period of time, like the 40 days of Lent, we create a craving, an emptiness within. For instance, about now, I really miss a cold beer, or a piece of pie, because I’m giving up alcohol and dessert for Lent. This is valuable, because it reminds us that we all have a craving, an emptiness deep down that, really, only God can fill, a hunger, a thirst that only God can satisfy.

Two, our acts of penance bring us a little closer to the suffering of Jesus on the cross. Sure, His is infinitely greater, and we could never approximate it. But, especially in Lent, we want to unite ourselves more intimately to our Lord on Calvary so we can be with Him in glory on Easter.

Three, when we mortify ourselves in some way, we remind ourselves that to follow Jesus is not easy, to be faithful to His teaching and loyal to His Church will always entail some sacrifice, as anything worthwhile does.

Four, some penance in our lives brings us closer to those who suffer all the time. Our little sacrifices during Lent put us in solidarity with those poor who have to do without every day. Thus, fasting is particularly valuable when accompanied by generosity to those in need.

In one way, our culture appreciates the value of sacrifice. Just look at people groaning on treadmills, grimacing while jogging, or scrupulous about avoiding rich foods. Trouble is, this kind of self-denial is only for an earthly goal.

Jesus and His Church expect us to fast and do penance for a supernatural reason: to empty our lives of some pleasure so God can fill it; to grow in closeness to Jesus on the cross; to toughen ourselves for the hardship our faith always brings; and to sensitize us to the needs of the poor.

So, our Lenten strategy is clear: prayer, fasting, charity.

I got a letter from a group of eighth-graders at a wonderful Catholic school. The tradition of the school is that every Friday the eighth-graders have pizza the last 15 minutes of class. They love it.

Well, they’ve decided that, on the Fridays of Lent, they’re going to give up pizza; what’s more, for those 15 minutes, they go to church and pray the Stations of the Cross; and, get this, the money they save on the pizza is now being sent to Catholic Relief Services to help the poor in Haiti.

Well done, kids! Thanks for the good example! You’ve understood Lent well: prayer, fasting and charity.

Remember, stay away from those hot dog carts! My spies are watching!