My dear sons and daughters in Christ,
A blessed Lent to you all! As we continue in these forty days, I wanted to write to you briefly to explain some of the meaning behind the three main pillars of this season: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
At the heart of these practices, as with all things we do as Christians, is the glory of God. This is the primary reason we do everything we do in the Church—to glorify God in the heavens, and so to bring peace and salvation to all mankind. These Lenten pillars do this in particular by helping us to detach from the things of this world, so that we might attach and cling more fully to God. The Sacred Liturgy puts it this way: “For you have given your children a sacred time for the renewing and purifying of their hearts, that, freed from disordered affections, they may so deal with the things of this passing world as to hold rather to the things that eternally endure” (Preface II of Lent).
Prayer helps us to do this by devoting time to regular conversation with the Lord. This means we do not spend the time on other things, but rather in the quiet, intimate dialog with the one Who loves us the most.
Fasting gives glory to God by helping us to deny our desires for pleasure, and so stir up in our hearts a deep longing for God. We can think of Psalm 42 here: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you, O God.” Fasting also makes it possible for us in grace to “restrain our faults, raise up our minds, and bestow both virtue and its rewards” (Preface IV of Lent), and abstinence, a particular form of fasting from meat, helps to “humble our sinful pride, contribute to the feeding of the poor, and so help us imitate God in His kindness” (cf. Preface III of Lent). Here we can see that fasting and abstinence allow us not only to draw closer to God ourselves, but to give of our own goods, food, and money to invite others to do the same. This is the third pillar of almsgiving.
Each of these practices, therefore, is essential for living the Christian life (cf. Mt. 6:1-18), and each year, during the Lenten “campaign of Christian service” (Collect for Ash Wednesday), we seek to renew ourselves in them, again for the glory of God and the salvation of souls.
With this in mind, it may be helpful to remember some of the Church discipline regarding prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Prayer has the most ample room for variation. Where, when, and how one prays can differ from person to person, and from situation to situation. The important thing is that we pray regularly and consistently in ways that are biblically and traditionally sound. Similarly, almsgiving can take many forms. The important thing is that we do in fact give alms. This is supported especially by the constant biblical command to support the poor, as well as the Fifth Precept of the Church: “You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church” (CCC 2043)
The Church has a bit more regulation when it comes to fasting and abstinence, and reminds us of the following (cf. canons 1249-1253):
- that all Christians are bound by the law of God to do penance,
- that every day of Lent and every Friday of the year is a day of penance,
- that abstinence from meat is required for all Fridays of the year (outside of Lent another penitential practice may be undertaken, but penance must still be done on Fridays),
- that fasting and abstinence are required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday,
- that only when a solemnity falls on a Friday may one not observe the usual day of penance (During Lent, here in the Diocese of Gallup, this happens only when Saint Joseph (March 19) or Annunciation (March 25) falls on a Friday),
- and finally that anyone 14 and older must follow the laws of abstinence, and that those who are 18-59 years old must follow the laws of fasting.
We can sum this up by saying that we ought always to seek to do penance, especially to strengthen our relationship with God and in reparation for our sins, but must especially renew ourselves through spiritual practices in these forty days of Lent, “so that, more eagerly intent on prayer and on the works of charity, and participating in the mysteries by which they have been reborn, we may be led to the fullness of grace that God bestows on His sons and daughters” (cf. Preface I of Lent).
As we move closer to the celebration of the Sacred Paschal Triduum, I assure you of my daily prayers for your continued celebration of Lent, and ask for your prayers on my behalf as well. I also give to each of you and your families my blessing.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
+James Seán Wall
Bishop of Gallup
Featured image: “The Widow’s Mite” by Jan Luyken