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What to give up for Lent?

March 9, 2011
Ashes imposed on the forehead of a Christian o...

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Lent is always a tough time of year for Catholics, for two reasons; 1) personally, it’s a time of sacrifice and reflection on our lives as Christians; and 2) all our non-Catholic friends have no idea what were doing and why we’re doing it.

The first question we always get asked, “What’s the deal with the ashes on your forehead?”

I’ve always had a bit of difficultly with this. On the one hand, I love the concept of getting ashes – as a sign of mourning and repentance to God. But as I move through my secular life – work, shopping, traveling – I don’t like walking around with them on my forehead. I’m a firm believer in not making a show of one’s religion:

Matthew 6:1-4 – 1“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. 2 Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Now, I don’t think a person should practice their faith in secret either, but the ashes are an extraordinary example of my faith and therefore I find it slightly uncomfortable to walk around so notably with an ashen cross on my forehead.

After the ashes, my dear non-Catholic friends will often wonder, “Wait, why can’t you come out to lunch with us on Wednesday?”

This rule has changed a lot in the last couple of decades, but nowadays Catholics are “required” to fast on Ash Wednesday (and at the end of Lent on Good Friday). Why? It’s a sacrifice on our part, we have one full meal and eat little or nothing for the two other meals, which meal you choose as you big meal is up to you, but most people I know choose dinner. Up until a few years ago, fasting was done every Friday in Lent, by everyone. Now it’s restricted to Catholics of post-pubescent age and in good health.

Most of the practices of Lent harken back to the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert fasting and being tempted by the Devil.

Next question from my friends usually surrounds why I’m always eating fish and plain pizza on Fridays.

Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays. Why? Well there are plenty of explanations, but I’ve always been partial to Thomas Aquinas, who said meat “affords greater pleasure as food [than fish], and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter.”

I tend to be a bad meat abstainer. My mom likes to point out I used to eat a lot of swimming cows and chickens during my college years as I would routinely forget I was eating a Double Chesseburger or Chicken McNuggets on a Friday. My wife now reminds me every Friday morning, “don’t forget, no meat!” I usually remember.

The last question always infuriates my non-Catholic friends, “WHY ARE YOU GIVING UP beer/chocolate/fast food/soda/insert-vice here!?” This one circles back to the abstinence issue, and truthfully, it’s much more of a sacrifice than fasting for two days in Lent or not eating meat on Fridays. Do you have any idea how much my wife likes drinking Diet Coke, my mom likes eating potato chips, or friend Erin likes candy? These are not easy things to give up for 40 days. (By the way, Lent lasts 46 days, however there’s no fasting/abstaining on the Sabbath, you don’t pain yourself on a day of celebration.)

This is where I tend to have my biggest problem during Lent. I never know what to give up. For one thing, most of my rather mild vices are next to impossible for me to successfully give up and I am often lawyer-like in my ability to rationalize a way into allowing myself to partake.

My biggest vice is probably fast food. It’s my work-week breakfast, lunch and on-the-road crutch. Unfortunately, for Lenten purposes, its not a daily habit, so I think I’ll need to adopt a second sacrifice. Lets hope I can come up with something before the next 46 days elapse. Afterall, if Jesus can be tempted for 40 days in the desert and then die on a cross for my sins, I should be able to give up chocolate or TV. Or maybe it should be an active “sacrifice,” daily Mass or rosary, weekly confession, praying the Divine Office, etc?

Feel free to make a suggestion in the comment section below.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Kristin permalink
    March 9, 2011 4:57 PM

    Hey!! Nice blog. Instead of giving something UP this year, I’m going to DO something. I’m going to attend daily mass at least once a week and I’m going to spend more time praying.

    • March 9, 2011 5:40 PM

      Excellent! And thanks for reading the blog. I know it’s not quite in the same category of what is usually read in the Henry household 🙂

    • March 9, 2011 5:42 PM

      I’m leaning towards daily reading of the Divine Office, but I have to remember how.

  2. Erin hensh permalink
    March 9, 2011 5:39 PM

    Nice blog entry, Mike. I know we have had this debate in the past but I feel the need to point something out. While I agree with you on the point that we shouldn’t make a big show when praying, tithing, and fasting, I do not agree with you that ashes on our foreheads fall into those categories. The bible says we should spread the word of God and profess our faith from the mountain tops (I’m paraphrasing of course). If you want something more tangible there are these verses:
    Matthew 28:18- 20 And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.
    Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:
    Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the World. Amen

    Mark 16:15-16 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be Amen.

    Now I don’t live very close to any mountain tops so I think a day like Ash Wednesday offers practicing Catholics a way to profess their faith without feeling like a pushy bible-thumper.
    Michael and I both had a hard time thinking of something to give up so we made a deal: he picked what he thought is my big vice and I picked his. This is going to be interesting!
    PS I’m giving up junk food- #1 on the list… Candy! Lol!

    • March 9, 2011 5:47 PM

      Oh yes, you’re absolutely correct. I recall vividly the emails that went back and forth between you, me and Fr. Joe on the subject. And the two of you made fine points disagreeing with my position. However, it just keeps sticking with me. Of course, I’m also the guy who wants to be a deacon with tailor-made vestments.

      Glad I nailed your vice in the blog! See, even though I don’t see you guys nearly enough, you’re never far from my thoughts!

  3. Pat permalink
    March 10, 2011 12:00 PM

    About the ashes: I have spent more than a few years working in the world of the Catholic Church. Everybody had ashes. This year, however, in the world at large, ashes made a difference. I went grocery shopping after mass yesterday. Everybody in Shop-Rite knew that I was a Catholic because I had that smudge on my forehead. It made me stop and think about not showing my exasperation with people who left their carts blocking my way; about the woman in express check out with clearly more than her ten items; about the driver who did not yield to the pedestrian (me) in the cross walk.

    Ashes also let me know who else shares my faith, at least on this one day of the year, when I might not know it otherwise. And ashes let others know that I share their faith.

    Trying to make daily mass this Lent. Two for two. Yesterday it was SRO at St. Patrick. Today, less crowded, but still quite a large group for a very soggy Thursday morning.

  4. Don Dunnington permalink
    March 11, 2011 5:05 PM

    I have to agree with Erin and Pat on this one. The ashes are a humble (actually humbling) symbol of both our mortality and our faith. In my opinion it’s about as far as you can get from religious ostentation. It wasn’t part of my protestant upbringing. I still remember the first Anglo-Catholic Ash Wednesday service I participated in. It was one of the most profound religious services I’ve experienced. An equally moving experience was at the opposite end of lent: my first Anglican Good Friday and Stations of the Cross. This Wednesday we were traveling and missed the ashes for the first time in many years. At the airport, the TSA agent checking our IDs had a smudge on her head. Both my wife and I found that to be a comforting sign, like she had shared with us something valuable that we had missed. I admired her courage to make this humble display in such a public and secular setting.


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