St. Augustine once said that fasting and almsgiving are the two “wings” that help our prayer fly up to heaven. An image like this gives us the idea that denying ourselves and caring for the poor are closely related and that together they can give a powerful thrust to our spiritual lives. By helping us put aside selfishness, they make it easier for us to focus on Jesus and the selfless love he wants to build up in us.
Lent is often reduced to a time when we “give something up,” a time when we take up practices that we don’t enjoy but that we sense are good for us. It’s the equivalent of a child learning to eat his vegetables: he knows they are good for him, but he doesn’t like how they taste. While such an approach may work with children, this is not how God wants us—grown men and women—to look at the life he is calling us to. He wants us to look at Lent as a time of renewal and not just a set of chores we do grudgingly.
In the English-speaking world, the word “Lent” highlights this sense of renewal and spiritual growth. The word is derived from the Old English word lencten, which refers to the way the days lengthen as the season of spring unfolds. Springtime is a crucial season for farmers as they watch their crops closely and tend them carefully, hoping for a plentiful harvest. In a similar way, Lent is a time for us to pay extra attention to the seeds of faith and obedience God has sown in us, in the hope that by Easter we will harvest the fruit of his Holy Spirit.
So let’s make it a point this Lent to break away from our everyday routine so that we can ask the Holy Spirit to help us learn how to fly farther and faster.
When You Fast . . . Ash Wednesday is the beginning of a new season of expectation. It’s a season for tending our spiritual gardens more closely so that we can reap the richness of God’s renewing grace. It’s not a burdensome season; it’s a time for hope and joy as we look forward to what God is prepared to do in our hearts.
When he taught about fasting and prayer and almsgiving, Jesus gave us three specific directions to follow. You can read about them in Matthew 6:1-18.
Looking at these verses, the first thing we can see is that Jesus didn’t say, “If you fast” or “If you give alms” or “If you pray.” No, he said when you do these things. These aren’t optional add-ons to our spiritual lives. They are commands from the Son of God. They are vital practices that help us break away from our self-centered and our self-indulgent mind-sets.
Jesus told us to fast, to give alms, and to pray because he knows that they help us place our possessions, our comforts, and our worth in the right perspective. He knows that self-denial multiplied by prayer and generous giving opens our eyes to God’s love. He knows, firsthand, how these practices help us to love and care for other people.
Second, Jesus told us to do our almsgiving, our prayer, and our fasting in private. He didn’t want us to put on a public display that will make people applaud us or call us holy. He disliked the way some of the religious leaders of his day sought glory and acclaim from the very people they were supposed to lead closer to God. It’s as if they were drawing the people closer to themselves rather than to the Lord! Far better, Jesus said, to stay quiet about our spiritual practices so that we can focus on God more than on other people’s respect.
Heavenly and Earthly Rewards The third point that Jesus made is the most significant. He said that if we give alms and pray and fast in secret, our heavenly Father will reward us (Matthew 6:3-4, 6, 17-18).
Jesus is not speaking about material rewards. We don’t take up these Lenten practices in the hope that God will shower us with worldly prosperity. No, he was speaking both about the rewards of glory that await us in heaven and about the more immediate rewards that we will reap here on earth. According to St. Leo the Great, some of these immediate rewards include a deeper relationship with God, greater freedom from sin, and a renewed concern for the needs of the poor in our midst.
Leo also spoke about how our Lenten observance can help build harmony in our homes. Our fasting, prayer, and almsgiving can make us into better spouses, better parents, and better children. They open us to God’s grace, which helps us become less selfish, more generous, and more kind. They help us to love each other in ways we thought were not possible. They teach us to repent and to try to reconcile wounded relationships. In other words, when we come to the Lord with fasting, with generous almsgiving, and with prayer, God rewards us by changing us into his image one step at a time.
If you take Leo’s words to heart by observing these three Lenten practices, you can be sure that your heavenly Father will reward your efforts with a harvest of abundant grace. That’s a promise from Jesus.
Motivation. Clearly, the quality of our fast is more critical than the quantity of our fast. Likewise, the intention behind our almsgiving is more important than the amount of money we give away. And the focus of our prayer means more than the amount of time we spend praying.
To paraphrase St. Paul, we could give away one million dollars, eat nothing for the next forty days, and spend hours in prayer each day, but if there is not an increase of love or a deeper sense of solidarity with God’s people, then we have missed the point (1 Corinthians 13:3). At the same time, giving away just a small amount, but in a way that is truly sacrificial, can have a huge effect on us and on the people we are giving to. The whole point of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer is to draw us closer to God so that we can be changed by his Spirit “from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Money and possessions are not the heart of the issue. On their own, they don’t lift us up to heaven or drag us down to hell. The heart of the issue is the way they can control us. It’s hard to be wealthy and not let our wealth influence the way we think or act. It’s hard not to find our value or security in how much we own or how much we are worth. That’s why prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are so important. They show us how to place what we own—however much or little that is—in a broader, heavenly perspective. They show us that our relationship with God and his people is far more important than our status and our possessions.
Method. So if you can fast every day during Lent, you will be blessed. If all you can do is give up meat on Fridays, you will be blessed as well. If you can give a lot of your clothing and money to the poor, you will be blessed. If you can give just a little, you too will be blessed. This is what really matters: that you do these things out of humility and love, that you sacrifice in order to receive God’s grace and share it with the people around you.
Remember, too, that while fasting is typically linked to food, it doesn’t have to be exclusively about eating or drinking. We can fast from television or the Internet. We can give up sarcasm, cynicism, or negative speech and try to speak only uplifting and encouraging words. We can fast from divisive thoughts and try to live in unity. We can fast from excessive worrying and focus on putting our trust in the Lord. What matters is that we fast, not how we fast.
Proclaim a Fast. So go ahead and proclaim a fast in your home this Lent. Give generously to those in need. Set aside time to pray. If you already have an established prayer time, try to spend a little more time with the Lord each day.
Whatever you choose to do, let it help you draw closer to the Lord. And remember: your heavenly Father is going to reward you with a wave of blessings—more than you can possibly imagine. May God bless all of us with his grace this Lent!