A posting by the USCCB on February 22, 2023 clarifies the true meaning of Lent: “During Lent, we seek the Lord in prayer by reading Sacred Scripture; we serve by giving alms; and we practice self-control through fasting. We are called not only to abstain from luxuries during Lent, but to a true inner conversion of heart as we seek to follow Christ’s will more faithfully.”
As Ash Wednesday launches the forty days of Lent, most Christians surmise what their fasting will include—no ice cream, no sweet treats, no fattening foods. But Father James Hudgins, pastor of St. Theresa Catholic Church in Ashburn, Virginia, wrote about the true Lenten practice in the bulletin for the first Sunday of Lent.
“If ever there were a misunderstood Lenten practice, it would be fasting…Physical hungers will dominate your life if you do not work to keep them quiet. Fasting disciplines these hungers, and allows our best self to emerge…It’s because control of your eating is a very effective way to gain control over every bodily desire, including anger, sloth, envy greed—and especially lust.”
Several fasting Christians talk about how they approach Lent with a two-fold program: fasting from treats and also diving into liturgical readings. Consider Kathryn Gauld from Los Angeles. “Fasting is a reminder that Jesus is with me at all times,” she said. “Sometimes I need a reminder, and I very specifically have to give up something and to do something positive.” She added that she does give up sweets for Lent. But more importantly, her positive action in Lent is to do something to increase her awareness of Jesus by reading two specific books, one of which is Jesus Calling. Reading this, she added, lets her know that Jesus is talking to her, and that He is with her always, holding her by her right hand.
Fredericka Wall in Ashburn, Virginia, follows that same pattern: giving up something, like sweets, afternoon cookies, or chocolate, on the sacrificial side, and observing regular devotions on the prayerful side. “For Lent, I follow several devotions that come online, and I become reflective, and let the message sink in,” she said. “Lent is just beginning so we will see how that goes. I am not always successful, but it makes me stop and think about what I am doing and makes me aware of the fact that it is Lent, and I should be preparing spiritually.”
Two other ladies also talk about giving up something sweet, especially chocolate, for Lent. Rita Steininger, Oakton, Virginia, notes that she used to give up chocolates, something she loves, but decided it was more spiritually beneficial to read the Stations of the Cross and to meditate on each one. “I realized that many things change in life,” she said, “so instead of giving up something, I wanted to better myself by following Christ in the way I live…. I feel the stations are meaningful like food for the day. It is better than giving up chocolate. … And one of the stations helps people in life carry the cross.”
Mary Ball, Ashburn, Virginia, also gives up one of her favorite temptations, chocolate. She tries not to give into temptation, but sometimes fails. “I try to be better about that,” she said. “It is a sacrifice we have to make but I have a marker in my Bible, and it gives me a scripture to read every day, and I even pray in the shower.”
True, giving up sweets or treats during Lent may be a form of fasting. But the true fasting, as these ladies say, is focusing on reading scripture and practicing acts of kindness to others.