It’s that time of year again. Ash Wednesday is upon us, so Catholics all across the world are thinking about what they want to give up for Lent. Many will give up small things like chocolate or soda, and others will make bigger sacrifices like sleeping on the floor or taking cold showers.
Recently, however, there has been somewhat of a backlash against this tradition. Some people have begun to say that we should do good deeds instead of giving something up. For example, rather than giving up sweets, they say we should give to the poor. So what should we make of this new trend? Should we make sacrifices during Lent, or should we perform acts of charity instead?
In a nutshell, the answer is that it is not an either/or—rather, it should be both/and. We should not choose giving up something or doing something good; instead, we should make sacrifices and perform acts of charity. Nevertheless, the idea that we should do good deeds rather than give something up does have some truth to it. It is simply a truth taken out of context and distorted. To see what I mean, let’s take a look at what Lent is all about.
What the Church Says
To begin, we can note that the length of the season, (approximately) forty days, is based on Jesus’ forty days in the desert before beginning his public ministry (Catechism of the Catholic Church 540). He fasted during those forty days (Matthew 4:1-2), so we too should fast during Lent, our forty days in the “desert.” As the Catechism says about this season:
“The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1438)
In this teaching, the Church tells us that Lent is a penitential season, a time during which we should sacrifice and make voluntary acts of self-denial, and it specifically mentions fasting as an example. So right off the bat, we can see that giving something up for Lent is definitely a good thing to do.
Moreover, the Church also tells us that there is more to Lent than just making sacrifices. This same paragraph says that acts like almsgiving and works of charity are appropriate during Lent as well, so like I said, it is not an either/or. We should give things up and perform acts of charity. We do not have to choose one to the exclusion of the other.
Why We Give Things Up
So what did I mean when I said that there is some truth in the idea that we should do good deeds rather than give things up for Lent? These days, a lot of people give something up simply for its own sake, but they don’t really understand why they do it. For example, someone might give up chocolate, but once Easter rolls around, they will go right back to eating all the chocolate they want without having made any real change in their lives.
And that is not what Lent is supposed to be about. If that is all we do, then yes, it is much better to perform acts of charity than to give something up simply for its own sake. However, the way to correct this is not to say that we shouldn’t give anything up; rather, we need to know why we give things up. We should understand why the Church encourages us to fast and make sacrifices during Lent.
For one, it is an act of penance. We make sacrifices to atone for our sins. Secondly, it is like spiritual exercise; it helps to strengthen us against temptation. By voluntarily giving up something we want, we strengthen our wills so that when we are tempted to sin, we have built up the willpower to resist that temptation. And thirdly, it helps us to focus on God. By giving up earthly goods, it helps to remind us that we are living for something more. It helps to keep us from becoming so attached to things of this world that we forget about God.
Charity and Sacrifice
So as we look forward to Ash Wednesday services and the rest of our Lenten journey, let’s keep in mind that this is not an either/or issue; we do not have to choose between giving things up or performing good deeds. Rather, let’s do both. Let’s choose sacrifices and acts of charity that will help us make real progress in our journey towards heaven, progress that we can retain into the Easter season and beyond.