Lent Reflection Series Session 1: Fasting, Almsgiving and Prayer

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day that begins Lent, the 40-day period preceding our commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Lent is a special time in the cycle of the Catholic Church and in some Protestant churches and so each year, in addition to whatever other retreats or programs I am giving in various other locations during Lent, I offer a Lent Refelection Series or Lent Retreat in Daily Living at the UST School of Law.

Yesterday was the first session of the four-session Lent Reflection Series I am offering this year.  The focus of my talk was on the traditional Lenten observances of fasting, almsgiving and prayer.  For some of the Catholics in the group, the talk offered, hopefully, a broader way of understanding practices they are familiar with from their youth.  For some of the non-Catholic Christians, it was an introduction to a season they did not know much about.

Following my talk, we had a good general discussion of some of the ways people have in the past marked Lent, and we talked about resources that might provide some ideas for how they might practice during this Lent.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 33:09.) A copy of the the handout I distributed to participants, which I talk about near the end of my talk is here.


Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving in Action

Tonight will be the second of the weekly Lenten Soup Suppers at Church of Christ the King in Minneapolis. I think the description of the event does a wonderful job of illuminating the relationship among prayer, almsgiving and fasting, the three traditional Lenten practices:

For many decades, our parish has observed the custom of gathering every Wednesday during Lent for prayer. Over twenty years ago, we initiated the custom of sharing a simple meal of soup and bread on Wednesday nights preceding the prayer service to augment the day’s observance of prayer, fasting penitence and almsgiving. The idea behind the soup supper was inspired by ancient Christian tradition. To whatever degree is possible for each individual, as a parish we observe Wednesday as a day of fasting and penitence. At the end of the day, we gather as a parish and break our fast with a simple meal of soup and bread. Whatever money we might save by fasting throughout the day each Wednesday, we give as alms to feed the hungry. Then we conclude our day together in prayer, reviewing with gratitude the events of the day, noting when and how we experienced God’s presence, asking forgiveness for any wrongdoing and asking for grace to follow God more closely tomorrow.

We can engage in prayer, almsgiving and fasting in different ways during Lent. But I love the idea of a communal parish practice (even though I’ll end up missing most of the dinners since I’ll be speaking at St. Thomas Apostle most of those evenings).

I especially love that the communal practice emphasizes the relationship between fasting and almsgiving, something that was a prominent theme in the writings of the early church fathers. The Shepherd of Hermas, a second century text reads: “In the day on which you fast you will taste nothing but bread and water; and having reckoned up the price of the dishes of that day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan , or to some person in want.” Gregory the Great preached, “The one who does not give to the poor what he has saved but keeps it for later to satisfy his own appetite, does not fast for God.”

We sometimes forget the relationship, so it is good to have the reminder.

In Secret and Hidden

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. In Gospel reading for today’s Mass, Jesus gives his disciples some instruction on the traditional Lenten practices: almsgiving, prayer and fasting.

When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be in secret…

When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret…

When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden.

We engage in the practices of prayer, almsgiving and fasting not to impress our friends and colleagues with how pious we are, but as a way of turning ourselves more and more toward God. Although it has always been a popular pastime among Catholics to trade, “what are you giving up?” responses, Jesus is clear that this one is properly between us and God.

The advice is a little tricky though, because there is potential value in modeling our faith practices to others. We give witness to the centrality of our faith when we take Lent seriously. So for me the issue becomes one of motivation. Is my focus on God or on me? Am I letting someone see what I am giving up with the hope they focus on how good I am or with the hope they see how central God is? The hope that they praise me or praise God? Is it for God’s glory or my own?

Blessings during this Lenten season.

The Final Days of Lent

Here we are at the beginning of Holy Week, which means our 40 days of Lenten preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus are nearing an end.

During these days of Lent we have (hopefully) been focusing in a special way on our life with God – nurturing our relationship with God and deepening in our appreciation for God’s enormous and unconditional love for us.

Many of us made special efforts during this period to engage in the Lenten practices of fasting, almsgiving and prayer. We may have given up something that distracted us from our discipleship. We may have taken up some practices, perhaps attending an extra Mass during the week, or engaging in some charitable activity.

We can look at such practices just as something we did during Lent, and say good-bye to them once Lent is “officially” over. But perhaps we might consider making such practices part of our life. If we’ve given up something, we’ve discovered during these days that it is not something we need for our happiness. Even if we don’t give it up completely and forever, perhaps we might still occasionally refrain. If we’ve taken up some new practice, perhaps we’ve found that it is such an aid to our spiritual growth that it makes sense to continue the practice.

You get the idea. My invitation today is to take a look at the practices you have been engaging in during Lent and ask whether they deserve a permanent (or at least frequent) part of your spiritual practice, even as this season of Lent draws to a close.

Fasting, Almsgiving and Prayer

Several weeks ago, I gave a reflection at a Taize prayer service we held in my parish, St. Hubert’s in Chanhassen. I decided to use the gospel of the day – St. Matthew’s account of Jesus instruction to his disciples on prayer, almsgiving and fasting – as the starting point for my reflection. That is the reading we hear every year on Ash Wednesday and prayer, almsgiving and fasting are considered by Catholics to be traditional Lenten practice. The use of this Matthew reading as a Gospel reading during Ordinary Time struck me as an important reminder that these three practices are not merely “Lenten practicees” but as fundamental Christian practices that are important for us to engage in regularly at all times during the year.

It has been a while since Elena and I have managed to coordinate our schedules to produce a podcast, so we decided to take advantage of the opportunity to do so before she heads off to a three-week voice program at Brevard. This podcast is based on the reflection I gave during the Taize prayer service. It begins with a reading from Matthew’s Gospel and then gives some thoughts about each of the three practices.

You can stream the podcast (which runs for 13:36) from the icon below or can download it from here. (Remember that you can now also subscribe to Creo en Dios! podcasts on iTunes.)

Prayer, Almsgiving and Fasting

Tonight I will be attending a Taize prayer service in my parish and offering a brief reflection on the readings. The Gospel reading I selected for tonight’s service is today’s Gospel reading from St. Matthew, which contains Jesus’ instructions on prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

As Catholics will recall, this is a reading we hear at the beginning of Lent every year, since prayer, almsgiving and fasting are viewed as traditional Lenten practices. The inclusion of this reading in a Gospel in the month of June is an important reminder to us that these are not practices reserved for Lent. Rather, all three are fundamental (and therefore year-round) aspects of the lives of all of us who call ourselves Christians.

Almsgiving is not an optional activity. If you have any doubt about that, go back and re-read the judgment passage in the 25th Chapter of Matthew. Jesus is quite clear how the sheep and goat will be separated at the end of the day and it is all about “what you did for the least of these.”

Fasting, other than as part of some crash diet, is not something all that consistent with our consumerist culture, which encourages us to always want and have more. For Christians, fasting is not only an act of solidarity of those without, but an important reminder that the source of our ultimate satisfaction is nothing we can find and accumulate here.

We hopefully need no reminder of the importance of prayer in our lives. But Jesus’ instruction in today’s Gospel to to into our “inner room” is an important reminder of our need every day for quiet time with our God. It is not enough to say “my work is my prayer” or “I recite some prayers while I’m driving in traffic.” Those are both terrific, but they don’t take away from our need for quiet, contemplative time with our God.

Prayer. Almsgiving. Fasting. Practices for every day.

What Separates the Sheep from the Goats?

Today’s Gospel from St. Matthew 25 is a passage I’ve written about before. In it, Jesus tells his disciples how the Son of Man will separate the sheep from the goats. He will say to the sheep on his right:

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

Those on his left are told they are condemned because they did none of these things. Both groups are somewhat confused by this message. Those on the right say – look, we’re really happy to be saved and all that, but, tell us Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you or thirsty and give you something to drink? And when did we see you a stranger, naked, sick, in prison; we don’t really remember doing any of those things. And the Son of Man responds: when you did it to the least of these brothers of Mine, you did it for me.

And to those on the left who say, wait a minute, we never saw you and refused you love or help, we never would have passed you by if we saw you in need, the Son of Man says: when you did not do it for the least of these you did not do it to me.

The theologian Michael Himes calls this passage “one of the most extraordinary statements” of our call to agapic love in the whole Christian tradition. He writes,

Please notice: the criterion of judgment has nothing to do with any explicitly religious action. The criterion is not whether we were baptized, or prayed, or read Scripture, or recieved the Eucharist, or believed the correct doctrines, or belonged to the church. Not one of these – however important they may be – is raised as the principle of judgment. Only one criterion is given: Did you love your brothers and sisters?

One of the primary Lenten practices is almsgiving. As today’s Gospel makes clear, meeting the needs of others is central to who we are as Christians. Lent invites us to place particular focus on our obligation to respond to the needs of the least of our brothers and sisters.

The Beginning of Lent

Today, Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period preceding the death and resurrection of Christ. Lent is a special time in the cycle of the Catholic Church. It is a time in which we are invited to focus in a special way on our life with God, to nurture our relationship with God and to deepen our appreciation for God’s enormous and unconditional love for us.

Joyce Rupp writes, “The church is wise in offering us the season of Lent because it can be the very time we need to find what is missing in our lives; it can be the season to deliberately seek what has been tossed away or misplaced or ignored, so that our lives can once again reflect the gospel which Jesus encouraged us to live. Lent can be a searching out and a restoration time and the means for renewed direction.”

The traditional Lenten observances are fasting, almsgiving and prayer. In the words of Father William Joensen, “Each of us is entrusted during Lent with the sacred task of going into the soil of ourselves, inviting the Spirit to help us venture into the inmost recesses of our being: by more persistent prayer, by means of fasting calibrated to the demands and discipline of our personal lives, and by sharing our material, human resources in an intentional, consistent manner.”

It is not that we do these practices at Lent and not at other times. All of them should be part of our lives as a normal matter. However, as the Rupp passage I just quoted suggests, sometimes the busyness of our lives let us lose track, lose our focus on practices that are fundamental to who we are. So let today be our re-dedication of ourselves, a day on which re-commit ourselves to nurturing our relationship with our God and with each other.

Update: Busted Halo has a Lenten calendar containing suggestions for those seeking innovative ways to engage in the Lenten practices. You can find it here.

Another update: I earlier this month linked on the sidebar under “Interesting Items” Pope Benedict’s Lenten message. In case anyone missed it, you can read it here.