“So what are you giving up for Lent?” That’s a popular question among Catholics as Lent approaches. This is good, because part of the “discipline of Lent” is sacrifice. But what is the point of it? But if the only purpose of sacrifice—of “giving up” something—is to be able to say you’re doing something for Lent, or if that sacrifice is merely about self-improvement, we’ve missed the point.
Lenten sacrifice involves of a three-pronged approach to this time of spiritual renewal: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, or to put it more succinctly: lifting up, giving up, and taking up… the “ups” of Lent. It’s only when we pursue all three that the real renewal intended in Lent can happen.
In prayer, we “lift up” our hearts to the Lord. We express praise and gratitude, we present our needs, and open our heart as we surrender to God’s will and power to save. This is important in Lent where we strive to set our relationship with God aright. Prayer helps us do that by keeping open communication with God—we talk to God and we await and listen to God’s response. As we present our needs we recognize our dependence on God and grow in our trust in his promise to provide for what we really need.
In fasting, we “give up” what we don’t really need in the first place. Sometimes that feels like the most difficult part of all, and if the “giving up” isn’t replaced by something more fruitful, then it might be just a hardship for the sake of the hardship, or it might be replaced by something equally meaningless. For example, if I give up chocolate, only to replace it by eating ice cream, then there is no real benefit. Or if I give up or cut back on watching television, but replace it with video games or time online, then to what end am I really giving something up?
It’s the third “up”— “taking up”—that makes the giving up work. We “take up” works of charity (almsgiving) in order to walk more clearly the path of service and love the Lord calls us to walk. In this regard, we remove the excess by “giving up” in order to engage in what we are really called to do. So perhaps I might give up or cut back on watching television, in order to make time to be present to someone in need, to dedicate some time to study, reflection or prayer.
The journey of Lent lets us walk more closely with Jesus, who desires our presence, sometimes more than we desire his. May our “lifting up,” “giving up,” and “taking up” lead us to get more “caught up” in the love of God through his Son’s Cross and Resurrection.
Msgr. Richard Hilgartner is director of the Secretariat for Divine Worship of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.