The days of Lent are a call for Catholics to prepare to celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection founded upon three pillars: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. On Ash Wednesday, we hear Matthew 6 proclaimed with these familiar exhortations from Jesus: “When you give alms…when you pray…when you fast…” (Matt 6:3, 5, 16).
The holy disciplines of Lent are not about “if,” but rather “when.” Jesus knows our humanity, our frailty, and our need for spiritual growth throughout the year, but especially in Lent. He knows amicable almsgiving, persistent prayer, and fastidious fasting (OK, this last one might be a stretch, but you get the idea!) are good for our souls.
While each of the traditional disciplines of Lent might appear to be outward ways of showing penance or devotion, in reality, they are rooted in the interior life. Put differently, the Lenten penitential acts of almsgiving, prayer and fasting help us grow from the inside in our relationship with and reliance on God; they provide the substance that can feed the inner life of the soul.
For instance, fasting seems to be a concern about what goes into our bodies (or better yet, what does not go into us); yet Jesus’s call to deep, inner conversion transforms the practice of fasting so that our souls find sustenance from divine reliance on God, rather than regarding our bodies as sustained by earthly food and drink. Remember, Jesus, in his temptation in the wilderness, fills up that space created by his long ordeal without food with the nourishment that comes from keeping his Father’s word: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4, quoting Deut 8:3).
For more “food for thought” about how spending time ruminating on God’s Word can help sustain your soul in periods of fasting this Lent, here are some Scripture passages for you to digest:
When I found your words, I devoured them; your words were my joy, the happiness of my heart, Because I bear your name, LORD, God of hosts.
Yet I, when they were ill, put on sackcloth, afflicted myself with fasting, sobbed my prayers upon my bosom.
Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.”
With regard to prayer, Jesus’s relationship with the Father is sustained by active and intimate periods of prayer: “Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35); “[Jesus] said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.’ People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat” (Mark 6:31). While fasting creates a space or a hunger in your will that allows you to rely on God, so too prayer invites God into those spaces in your mind that allow you to converse with him. For prayer to feed your relationship with God, Jesus teaches that there are times for you to retreat “to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret” (Matt 6:6).
Consider how these prayers from Scripture can renew your relationship with God from the inside through personal prayer this Lent:
1 Kings 18:36–37
At the time of offering sacrifice, Elijah the prophet came forward and said, “LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, LORD! Answer me, that this people may know that you, LORD, are God and that you have turned their hearts back to you”.
Psalm 139:14, 23–24
I praise you, because I am wonderfully made; wonderful are your works! My very self you know… Probe me, God, know my heart; try me, know my thoughts. See if there is a wicked path in me; lead me along an ancient path.
At that very moment he rejoiced [in] the Holy Spirit and said, “I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will.”
Finally, by giving alms we recognize that everything we have received is a gift, and so this interior movement of gratitude allows us to be generous with others. The more grateful we are; the more humble we will be; and the more humble we are; the more grateful we become. Lent prepares us for celebrating Jesus’s total and complete gift of self to the Father in perfect obedience to the Father’s will. Through the power of Christ’s cross and resurrection, we receive a share and a participation in the grace won for us: the triumph of death over life, hope over despair and obedience over selfishness.
Giving alms allows us to participate in the generous, saving work of God, who sent us all we could ever need in the gift of his Beloved Son:
As you go, make this proclamation: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons. Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give. Do not take gold or silver or copper for your belts; no sack for the journey, or a second tunic, or sandals, or walking stick. The laborer deserves his keep.
A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”
The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy, according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.