Question: Why do Catholics observe Lent?
Answer: Catholics must live in the world, but it is a commonplace that we must not be "of this world." That is not always so easy, as much of modern society is designed with personal gratification in mind -- we have all seen the advertisements telling us how we have "earned" the rich "lifestyle" that we "deserve." There is, of course, nothing wrong with enjoying the fruit of one's honest labor, but the secular world would have us live as though we were entitled to everything (just "charge it" at 18%), and as though nothing matters apart from physical comfort and enjoyment. In reality, there is something more important -- much more important -- the glory of God and the salvation of our immortal souls.
Every year the Church calls upon us to adjust our thinking. It reminds us that we would have no future at all if Jesus Christ had not taken human nature and offered the sacrifice of His life on the cross. It calls us to emulate, in some fashion, our Lord's spirit of sacrifice. Remember that God lowered Himself to become one of us, lived in relative poverty at a generally primitive time in our history. He spent thirty-three years on this earth in our lowly condition. Toward the end of His life He could honestly say that He had nowhere to lay His head. He did nothing but good, and yet was often rewarded with nothing but hatred, mockery, and condemnation. Ultimately, He was nailed to a cross to die a slow and agonizing death to atone for our sins.
Each year the Church reminds us that all sin -- from the sin of Adam and Eve down to our own -- is a turning away from God. Almost always, the sinner is convinced that he somehow "deserves" to enjoy a "lifestyle" somewhat different from that prescribed by His God, and perhaps not in the best interest of the society around him. The sinner is assured by the same serpent that deceived Adam that he is "special" -- that God has no right to lay down rules for him -- that God is "keeping him down," and that if he will just do as he pleases, he "will become like gods" himself.
The sin of Adam -- and, indeed, all sin -- is twofold. In its most basic nature, it is the result of pride. Very few sins are deliberately committed without inordinate pride. There is nothing wrong with pride in the sense of pride in one's workmanship, or pride in a neat and clean appearance -- pride in doing things the way they ought to be done. But there is great danger in the kind of pride that makes one feel more important than those around him: "I am more important than the man next door, therefore it is alright if I take his property, his wife, or his life ... and God needs to recognize and make allowances for my importance." The sin of Adam is also grounded in self indulgence. The forbidden fruit looked good to eat, and Eve assured him that his observation was correct. "Since I am so important, I will have what pleases me."
For centuries the Church has tried to put the nature of sin and the nature of redemption from sin in perspective by dramatizing these things in Her liturgical year. At Easter, the greatest festival of Christianity, the Church will assure us that we have been redeemed from sin by our Lord's death and resurrection. We have not been "saved," for that requires a lifetime of cooperation with the graces God freely gives us -- but, through no merit of our own, we have been given the means to merit our salvation. In order to prepare for the festival of our redemption, the Church asks us to get our lives in order in such a way that we will be more likely to cooperate with God's saving graces. The season of Lent should be for us a season of humility, repentance, and reparation.
Humility is not humiliation, but the honest appraisal of our selves and our behavior: "Have I done the things expected of me by my God, my family, and my society? If I have, that is good, but if not, what must I do; and in any event, can I do better?" Repentance is a conversion of heart and manners, the recognition of personal failure where it must be recognized, and a sincere resolve to do better in the future. Reparation is sometimes necessary; a good Sacramental confession of sins is the best way to begin Lent, restitution for any damage that can be restored, and some good works to atone for those things that cannot.
Modernist Christians erroneously describe Lent as "negative." But they fail to see that all of the good deeds and all of the altruism in the world are of little use if they do not spring from the desire to conform the soul to Christ by overcoming and eradicating the roots of sin. If pride and self indulgence are not brought in check -- if there is not humility, repentance, and reparation -- the good efforts of Lent will be forgotten quickly. The Christian must regard his lowly state and recognize that only God's grace can raise him above the state of his inadequacy. The conversion of the soul must be radical, a turning from the world to God, and not just a few efforts made for show.
Years ago the Lenten observance was much more rigorous. Due to the "hardness of our hearts," the Church has considerably relaxed the Lenten regulations over the years. In the modern Church Lent is barely noticeable. Yet, for own benefit, while Lent is not intended to make us ill or to keep us from going about our business, it ought to make a noticeable impression on our lives:
* State of Grace: Make a good sacramental confession early in the season. Being in God's grace makes everything more beneficial and makes it come more naturally. We are obligated to receive Holy Communion during the Lenten-Easter season, but we have the opportunity to receive our Lord every day at Mass.
* Prayer: The only way to turn towards God is consciously to recognize Him in your life. Daily prayer always. Also daily Mass and Communion, daily Rosary, Stations of the Cross, etc. If not daily, how about frequently?
* Spiritual Reading: Replace the "noise" of society -- the TV, the movies, and the useless reading -- with things that have a positive spiritual value.
* Fasting and Abstinence: Few will be harmed by the traditional "one full meal a day and two half meals," the "no meat on Fridays, Ash Wednesday, and the Ember Days." No one will be harmed by giving up desserts, tobacco, and liquor. We can all stand to gain a little self control by giving up those legitimate pleasures for a few weeks -- that may help us to overcome some illegitimate pleasure in the future.
* Good Works: They shouldn't be for show, of course, but Lent is a time for getting in the habit of doing good for others. Feed the hungry, teach the ignorant, visit the sick, clothe the naked, counsel the doubtful, work for the conversion of souls to the Faith, etc.
Keep a good Lent in order to have a blessed Easter. Remember that all of life -- not just Lent -- is a preparation ffor eternity. Be sure that your eternity is an eternity with God, and not one of eternal regret!