Sometimes people say they aren’t giving up something for Lent, they’re just going to try to do something positive. I think that can be a little permissively vague, to be honest. I usually tell people it doesn’t just have to be one or the other. In fact, the Church teaches that it shouldn’t be one or the other. Today’s Liturgy of the Word makes it clear that it very definitely should be both.
Fasting is important because it helps us to see how blessed we are. It is important because it helps us to realize that there is nothing that we hunger for that God can’t provide. Fasting teaches us, once again, that God is God and we are not. This is important for all of us independent-minded modern-day Americans. We like to be in charge, in control, and the fact is that whatever control we do have is an illusion. God is in control of all things, even when it seems like we are in chaos. Fasting teaches us that we can do without the things we’ve given up, and that God can provide for us in much richer ways. Fasting is absolutely essential to having an inspiring, life-changing Lent, and I absolutely think that people should give things up for Lent.
But giving something up for Lent does not excuse us from the obligation to love our neighbor. This falls under the general heading of almsgiving, and along with fasting and prayer, it is one of the traditional ways of preparing our hearts for Easter during Lent. We might be more mindful of the poor, contributing to the food pantry or a homeless shelter or relief organization. We might reach out by serving in some capacity, like volunteering for the mobile pantry, or helping out at the Daybreak shelter. We also might give the people closest to us in our lives a larger portion of the love that has been God’s gift to us, in some tangible way. Today’s first reading reminds us that fasting to put on a big show is a sham. Fasting to bring ourselves closer to God includes the obligation of almsgiving and prayer. Together, these three facets of discipleship make us stronger Christians and give us a greater share of the grace that is promised to the sons and daughters of God.