Embracing Lenten sacrifice

A shadow is cast on the wall of Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage during Stations of the Cross in Lent last year. — CatholicAnchor.org



As daylight and hope begin to grow each year, many Alaskans do spring cleaning, sifting through old clothes, casting out excess baggage and restoring essentials. Likewise, they and fellow Catholics around the world do spiritual housecleaning — detaching from sin, mortifying the body and purifying the soul — in Lent.


“Lent is an opportunity to help us cast out what is bad so God can fill us with what is good,” explained Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz in an interview with the Catholic Anchor.

In fact, Saint Augustine once metaphorically observed: “If he wishes to fill you with honey, and you are full of sour wine, where is the honey to go?”

So the 40-day penitential season of Lent provides a chance to ask, “‘What is standing in the way of my relationship with Jesus?’” Archbishop Schwietz said, and “to turn around, to rebuild the relationship with Jesus.”


The means of spiritual assessment and progress in Lent are prayer and repentance – and Jesus Christ shows the way.

Running 40 days to Easter, excluding Sundays, Lent mirrors Christ’s own 40-day trial of prayer and fasting in the desert after his baptism by Saint John.

At the end of that “Lent,” Satan tempted Jesus, but he rejected the attacks, showing himself perfectly obedient to God. As the Catholic Catechism explains, Jesus’ victory “anticipates victory at the Passion, the supreme act of obedience of his filial love for the Father.”

For fallen humankind, Jesus provided the example of turning away from sin and back to God. Part of that repentance is penance – as Jesus exemplified – such as fasting, prayer and almsgiving.

In the process, Christians can fill themselves with “good things,” explained Archbishop Schwietz – faithfulness to God and “the generosity of charity” toward others. Lent should mean a “conversion experience for each one of us.”


To help Catholics fulfill the obligations of repentance, the church specifies minimum penitential requirements.

First, all Fridays through the year, including Lent, are penitential days – in honor of the Passion and death of Jesus on Good Friday. They are naturally days of sacrificing. In contrast, Sundays, including those within Lent, are considered feast days because Christ rose from the dead on a Sunday.

CNS photo

On Fridays in Lent, Catholics must abstain or refrain from eating meat – hence the fish-fry tradition. On non-Lenten Fridays, Catholics are encouraged to abstain from meat. If they don’t, they must substitute another penance.

According to Canon law, all Catholics ages 14-on are obliged to the law of abstinence.

On Good Friday in Lent, as well as Ash Wednesday, Catholics must abstain from meat – and fast. That means a max of one full meal and two small ones, which together should not equal the full meal.

Fasting is an “exercise” which frees one from earthly concerns so as to discover life that comes from above. The Gospels explain that “man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Dt 8,3; Mt 4, 4; Lk 4,4) The discomfort of fasting unites one to Christ’s sufferings.

Lenten fasts are required for those between their 18th and 59th birthdays.


Aside from these minimums, Catholics are encouraged to impose a personal penance on themselves at other times.

“Jesus says, ‘Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me,’” Archbishop Schwietz noted. Taking on penances helps Christians “deny ourselves in order that we might take up our cross more fully to follow Jesus.”

Personal penances range widely. Some abstain from meat additional days or give up candy, alcohol, a pillow at night or computer time – which appears particularly challenging.

In a 2009 online poll by MarketingShift.com, 66 percent of respondents said they couldn’t fast from their favorite social network for Lent. Only 33 percent said they could.


In the past, Christians’ penances were regularly much more physically mortifying.

Sixteenth century English martyr Saint Thomas More wore a sharp hair shirt. Saint Francis of Assisi rolled in the snow and Saint Bernard jumped into an icy pond.

But physical penances are practiced by modern-day Catholics, too. Pope John Paul II slept on a bare floor and beat himself with a belt. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, the much loved nun beatified by the late pope, practiced self-flagellation, as well.

Although people regularly push their bodies to the limits on gym treadmills, the concept of mortifying the body for spiritual ends mystifies some.

For instance, self-flagellation was presented as extreme in the 2006 movie, “The Da Vinci Code.”

In reality, bodily mortifications are fine as long as the person isn’t injuring him or herself. “If it caused any harm, the church would not allow it,” Father Michael Barrett of Opus Dei noted on the religious order’s Web site.

But “voluntarily accepted discomfort is a way of joining oneself to Jesus Christ and the sufferings he voluntarily accepted in order to redeem us from sin,” he observed.

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