Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
The holy season of Lent will begin with this week’s Ash Wednesday celebration. In Lent, it’s customary for us Catholics to give up something that we do a lot of and that we find pleasure in doing. This “giving up” is done as a discipline for learning self-control, to free our minds from the chase after material things. It reminds us of Christ’s sufferings and what our true pleasures are as followers of Christ, and it is above all an act of sorrow over our sin.
A story is told about a father who had urged his children to move beyond giving up candy to giving up some sinful habit that marked their lives. About halfway through Lent, he asked the children how they were doing with their Lenten promise. One of his young sons had promised to give up fighting with his brothers during Lent. When his father asked how it was going, the boy replied, “I’m doing pretty good, Dad—but boy, I can’t wait until Easter!” That response shows that this boy had only partly understood the purpose of the Lenten “giving up.” Lent is about conversion, turning our lives more completely over to Christ and his way of life. That always involves giving up sin in some form. The goal is not just to abstain from sin for the duration of Lent but to root sin out of our lives forever. Conversion means leaving behind an old way of living and acting in order to embrace a new life in Christ.
Sometimes we don’t notice how certain things we do have gained power over us and dictated our actions. In Lent, we discover these things and give them up so that God can be in charge. The term “detachment” is often heard during Lent. It means that when you are less preoccupied by “stuffs”, you will have more room for God. As Catholics, we are required to give up meats on Fridays during the season. However, we can also give up other things. For some people, Lent is an opportunity to make an effort to give up television, phone chatting, gambling, impulse shopping, dance clubbing, indulging in sexual vices, shouting emotional outbursts—anything that relates closely to a particular sin that is especially sticky for them. Whatever that is, it is where their Lenten discipline need to be centered. For others, Lent is a time for making changes to their habits. For instance, using money or time more responsibly, eating and drinking in moderation, going to bed earlier and getting up earlier, becoming more organized and tidier, spending less time on the internet, speaking slowly and respectfully, praying and meditating on Scriptures daily, adopting a charitable cause, going to church more frequently, etc. These positive things are not only good for the body; they are also excellent for the soul.
Some people use Lent for taking the complexity out of parts of their lives. They pare down their busy schedules and concentrate on activities that matter most. Others look for a specific area of their life in which they use power over others, and then try to find ways to use less power in doing it. If you happen to be a control person, you can change the way you approach things and people. You can look at how you verbally treat another person and try to put yourself in their shoes. There can be so many things to do, but it is best to choose one thing at a time. Then, as that takes hold, give up another thing, as the Lord inspires you.
Lent’s somberness and starkness does not mean that we cannot celebrate or feast. It does not mean we cannot eat a hearty meal, or enjoy a good game or movie, or get a good laugh from a funny moment. Rather, in Lent we put a stop to our fevered pursuit of pleasure, and instead let it seek us. Then, when the moments of joy do come, we would recognize them as a gift from the loving God. Thus, Lent is not all about giving things up. It’s also about adding good things to our lives or to others’ lives—the kind of good things that follow on what Jesus asks of us.
The best thing you can do for yourself in Lent is to return to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Check out the Confession hours in our parish and other churches and motivate yourself to go. Remember, grace is built upon nature, God’s transformation of your life can only take place if you open the door to it. Wait no longer, dear brothers and sisters, for “now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor 6:2).
Faithfully yours in Christ,
Msgr. Cuong M. Pham