“What are you giving up?”
I know Lent is approaching when I start to hear this question. Even a couple of my non-Catholic friends ask me. I usually offer some vague non-committal response because, like my New Year’s resolutions, I don’t like it when other people notice when I inevitably depart from my Lenten intentions. But each year I give up something nonetheless.
I was taught that giving up something during Lent brought me closer to God by sharing in the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary. If I didn’t feel a bit deprived, then it wasn’t working. So, this year. I intended to forgo coffee, which is an admirable sacrifice for a guy with a Starbucks monkey on his back. I was planning to reap the spiritual fruits of my sacrifice because I could unite my (admittedly very minor) suffering with that of Christ. How noble! But now that Ash Wednesday is here, I’m starting to think that I might have missed the mark. Let me explain.
I recently read an article by Fr. Joseph Donders, who paraphrased St. Augustine on fasting: “Don’t believe that fasting suffices. Fasting punishes you, but it does not restore your brother… How many poor people could be nourished by the meal you did not take today?” Perhaps my original understanding of Lenten sacrifice was a bit self-centered and more navel-gazing than anything. It was all about “me and Jesus” rather than “me, Jesus, and my neighbor.” Giving something up for Lent is not an end in itself; rather, it should readily redirect my attention from myself toward others.
Likewise, St. John Chrysostom offers this insight: “Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works. If you see a poor man, take pity on him.” The primary beneficiary of my Lenten sacrifice should not be myself, but my neighbor in need. Self-denial frees my mind and my resources. What money or time I do not spend on myself, I need to spend for the benefit of others. And that’s the crux of the issue – giving something up during Lent requires me not only to think about the needs of others, but to do something to meet those needs.
Most recently, Pope Francis in his Lenten message emphasizes the connection between self-denial and charitable outreach: “We would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty.” Lent rescues me from myself and frees me to think about others – particularly those who suffer from poverty. From now onward, perhaps I will change the annual Lenten question from “What am I giving up?” to “How can I share with my neighbors in need?” I think the latter question more accurately reflects what we are called by the Gospel to do each Lent. I’m still going to give up coffee for Lent, but not quite for the same reasons as when I started. I hope your Lenten season is filled with many spiritual gifts – and perhaps you might join me in asking, “How can I share with my neighbors in need?”
–Matthew Myers, New Ways Ministry