Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In the gospel that we heard on Ash Wednesday Jesus said to his disciples “when you give alms….”, “when you pray….” and “when you fast….” He did not say to them “if you give alms….”, “if you pray…”, “if you fast…”. The practices he refers to were an essential part of the faith to be expected of all the Jewish faithful. And these are essential practices of the Christian faith too. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes them as an essential part of doing penance: “Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others”. It goes without saying that Christians must pray; and giving alms is a work of mercy and fraternal charity. Fasting, a considerable reduction in the amount of food consumed, is a requirement for Roman Catholics on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and some Anglo-Catholics may wish to follow this practice. But instead of fasting, the practice which is commonly followed by Christians during Lent is the practice of self-denial. In this more limited way we seek to put ourselves alongside Christ who fasted for forty days in the wilderness.
How one practises self-denial is a matter for each individual. Nor is it something to boast about. Rather, as Jesus tells his disciples, the acts of penance are to be done in secret where they will be seen by the Father who sees all that is done in secret. There are many forms self-denial could take, such as giving up alcohol or chocolates or a favourite television programme. At his Ash Wednesday address this year Pope Francis came up with a number of ‘give up’ suggestions reflecting some of the aspects of modern-day life which can lead us away from God. He urged people to disconnect from their cell phones and to connect to the Gospel, and to give up gossip, rumours and useless chatter, to give up insulting other people as if saying ‘good day’ and instead speak to God on first name terms.
In preparing my sermon for Ash Wednesday I came across a list of other acts of self-denial that we might consider adopting. They have been widely cited elsewhere and are attributed to the late Fr Craig Gates, from the diocese of Mississippi. I think his list of ‘what to give up for Lent’ bears repetition here.
Give up grumbling. Instead, in everything give thanks. Constructive criticism is acceptable, but moaning, groaning, and complaining are not Christian disciplines.
Give up 10 to 15 minutes in bed. Instead, use that time in prayer, Bible study and personal devotion.
Give up looking at other people’s worst points. Instead concentrate on their best points. We all have faults. It is a lot easier to have people overlook our shortcomings when we overlook theirs first.
Give up speaking unkindly. Instead, let your speech be generous and understanding. It costs so little to say something kind and uplifting. Why not check that sharp tongue at the door?
Give up your hatred of anyone or anything. Instead, learn the discipline of love for love covers a multitude of sins.
Give up your worries and anxieties. Instead, trust God with them. Anxiety is spending emotional energy on something we can do nothing about: like tomorrow. Live today and let God’s grace be sufficient.
Give up television one evening a week. Instead, visit some lonely or sick person. There are those who are isolated by illness or age. Why isolate yourself in front of the television? Give someone a precious gift: your time.
Give up buying anything but essentials for yourself. Instead, give the money to God. The money you would spend on the luxuries could help someone meet basic needs. We are called to be stewards of God’s riches, not consumers.
Give up judging by appearances and by the standard of the world. Instead, learn to give up yourself to God. There is only one who has the right to judge, Jesus Christ.
If we were only to give up just one of these things during Lent, we would surely better prepare ourselves for the joys to come at Easter.