The secular world has essentially hijacked Advent. “Are you ready for Christmas yet?” generally means “Have you bought all your gifts yet?” While this secularism can sometimes cause us to lose sight of the real meaning of Christmas, it at least keeps Christmas always at the front of our minds. It’s not easy to forget it’s coming when you’re surrounded by Christmas sales and Christmas songs six weeks ahead of time! So in a way, these reminders give us the opportunity to think, “Oh yeah! Christmas is coming. And it’s really about Jesus, so I should prepare spiritually, too.”
The secular world has not yet figured out how to market Easter. So, on the one hand, we Christians aren’t distracted from the sacredness of the season; on the other hand, our hectic, modern world is distraction enough, with nothing in our daily lives to remind us in the first place.
A Time to Prepare
Enter Lent. The Church has given us this beautiful season to help us prepare our souls to celebrate the most important event in the history of the world: the passion, death, and resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Each year, Lent is an opportunity to renew our Christian faith, and we are encouraged to use prayer, fasting, and almsgiving as the means to grow in our relationship with God.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday—arguably one of the Catholic’s favorite days of the year! It’s ironic, and yet in a way hopeful, that so many non-practicing Catholics actually take the time to get ashes. But this ancient practice is often misunderstood by non-Catholics. Have you ever had a helpful person say “You have something on your forehead” thinking you picked up some dirt somewhere?
When I was fresh out of college and working at a big accounting firm in Philadelphia, I came in one Ash Wednesday morning with ashes on my forehead. I went into the coffee room and was greeted by one of the managers. A quick glance and “G’morning” turned into a startled double-take and a gasp: “What happened to your head????” When I explained it was Ash Wednesday, she was actually relieved. She had thought I’d fallen and bruised myself badly!
Ash Wednesday is a great start to Lent, but we can too easily forget about Easter until Holy Week approaches. Life is busy, and we don’t see reminders all around us saying, “Easter is coming! Are you ready?” So we have to make those reminders ourselves.
We are creatures of our senses. We experience the world, and in fact, we experience God, through our senses. Holy water fonts remind us of our baptism; genuflecting before the Blessed Sacrament reminds us of the True Presence; the bread and wine become Christ’s Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity—the Catholic Faith uses physical reminders of theological truths heavily, and we can do something like that in our own homes and in our own lives to remind us daily of the season of Lent.
Prepare Your House
When my children were young, I scoured Catholic catalogs (before internet shopping was a thing) to find statues of the five sorrowful mysteries. I found four. No statues of the scourging. So I took a red marker and drew stripes on the statue of Jesus with the crown of thorns. Hey, it worked! Kids don’t care. I replaced all the knick-knacks on the mantle with the statues and a purple runner (nothing elaborate, just a piece of purple fabric I cut into a rectangle). We would pray our Rosary in front of the statues—the Sorrowful Mysteries every day in Lent except for Sunday, when we prayed the Glorious. These physical reminders reinforced the message that Lent was a time to think about the great gift Jesus gave us and how much he loves us, that we should grow to love him back, and that every Sunday we rejoice in his victory over death.
This worked for us, but find what works for you. Think about what will help you and your family focus on Lent and put something in your home that will remind you every day: a purple table cloth; a display with a crown of thorns; a picture of the agony in the garden in a prominent place; holy water by your door.
Besides preparing your home with daily physical reminders, prepare your heart with daily spiritual reminders. The Church recommends prayer, fasting, and almsgiving during Lent.
If you don’t have a daily prayer habit, Lent is the perfect time to begin. If you do, you can add a devotion or practice that will enhance your Lenten preparations and help you remain diligent. But keep it simple or you will feel overwhelmed and be less likely to keep it up.
Many people find a Lenten booklet especially helpful to maintain diligence without feeling overwhelmed. Whether you already have a daily prayer habit or you are trying to begin one, a Lenten prayer book like Ascension’s Lenten Companion is a valuable resource. In the Ascension booklet, each day of Lent includes a brief meditation on a Scripture verse. For instance, the Friday of the second week of Lent offers a different way of looking at “the woman at the well.”
I find these small Lenten booklets like Ascension’s to be very helpful. It doesn’t take much time and it will give you a thought to carry throughout the day. If you want to dig deeper on the day’s theme, Ascension’s Lenten Companion also offers suggested additional readings or action items.
Consider getting a booklet for someone you love so you have someone with whom you can discuss the daily meditations: your spouse, a good friend, or even someone who is not a practicing Catholic. The Ascension booklet is lovely, and it’s truly accessible to people at every level of the faith journey.
Besides daily prayer, consider going to confession more frequently and adding a daily Mass, if you are able. The sacraments are the greatest gifts the Lord gave us for growing in grace and we should utilize them as often as possible.
An aspect of Lent that is often forgotten is fasting, and I’m just as guilty. Who likes to fast? Americans in particular eat way too much, and with the world at our fingertips with our smart phones, we are conditioned to expect instant gratification.
The Church only requires that we abstain from meat every Friday in Lent and on Ash Wednesday, and that we fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, eating only one full meal plus snacks that only add up to another meal. That’s not too harsh.
But fasting can be much broader than that. Think outside the box. The goal of “offering something up for Lent” is to turn our minds to God. So if you offer up listening to music while driving, try replacing it with prayers or with a Catholic podcast. Fast from social media, especially if you find you’re on it too much, and spend that time in prayer or talking to a friend. Our fasts can also help us overcome subtle addictions or areas where we are heading down the wrong path. Think about where you may be going in the wrong direction and how a Lenten fast can help turn that around.
You can also offer up or fast from something different each day. One day it may be your morning coffee, another day it might be a particular show you watch. You may even choose a positive: find something nice to say about someone who annoys you. The goals of fasting are to turn our minds to God throughout the day and to grow in virtue and love, so think about what will help you do that.
Almsgiving traditionally refers to helping the poor financially, but by extension, we can help anyone in need by our actions, as well. Here are some suggestions:
- Create a “giving jar” or use the box from Operation Rice Bowl, which supports Catholic Relief Services. (In many dioceses you can pick up a box at your church.) Make a practice of putting in your loose change every day. On days that you fast from your morning coffee or some other item, put in what it might have cost you, so you give to the poor instead.
- Go through your things and see what you can give away. Try to give away a few items that are really hard to part with, something that others would really benefit from.
- Help at a soup kitchen, a nursing home, or a crisis pregnancy center.
- Pray outside of an abortion center or start sidewalk counseling.
- Volunteer at your parish.
- Pick someone you know who needs to know the love of Jesus. Pray that God puts the right people and experiences into that person’s life and pray to be a light on that person’s path. Then look for opportunities to be that light. This does not necessarily mean preaching; we must witness by our lives as much as by our words.
There are many ways to apply prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in our own lives and experiences. Take some time before Lent to really think about how to best utilize the season to prepare your soul to grow in faith.
Travel along Your Lenten Path with Others
Those who are embarking on a journey of self-improvement, whether that be dieting, exercising, or overcoming addiction, know that they will be more likely to stick to it and succeed if they find a partner with whom they can travel upon that difficult road. I encourage you to do the same. Engage your family in certain activities that all of you can share—like house decorations, a daily prayer together, or corporal works of mercy. Share your daily Lenten prayer practice with your spouse, good friend, or prayer group by using the same prayer booklet and discuss how the meditations are inspiring or challenging you. Share with these chosen prayer partners your fasting efforts, as well, to help you stay on track, especially as Lent goes on and it gets harder and harder to offer something up each day.
If you can put some of these suggestions into practice, you will be able to stay spiritually diligent during Lent and will reach Easter truly prepared for the great Allelujah!
Do you have any other suggestions that can help people stay spiritually diligent during Lent? Offer them in the comments below.
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Jeannette Williams is the part-time communications coordinator of St. Jude Church and Shrine in Chalfont, Pennsylvania and a freelance writer and blogger. The mother of six, she homeschooled the first five through high school in the classical tradition, while the youngest now attends a new classical high school, Martin Saints, in Oreland, Pennsylvania. Jeannette’s greatest passion, besides her family, is to study the Catholic Faith and share it with others. When she’s not writing, Jeannette enjoys studying Spanish and Japanese, gardening, and spending time with her husband and children.