I know, I know: it's Lent. But lately, I've heard or read comments where people will say/write something to the effect of, "I know it's Lent, but I need caffeine, so that's why I'm drinking this cappuccino right now." Or, "Yeah, I fail at Lent, and I'm an awful person, so I might as well just enjoy this chocolate and wallow in my lameness."
In fact, I will confess that, the other day while having a lunch date with a good friend of mine, I offered her chocolate. She declined, saying that she's giving it up for Lent, and I immediately launched into a justification of why I don't give up chocolate for Lent. Why did I do this? I guess it may be because so many times, there's this mentality that "Good Catholics deny themselves most forms of edible pleasure during Lent." We aren't required to do this. However, our consciences and minds can scream:"BUT IT'S WHAT ALL CATHOLICS IN THE U.S. DO!!!" No, together, we abstain from meat on Fridays and fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. In fact, here's a little snippet from The Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence about it:
"Wherefore, we ask, urgently and prayerfully, that we, as people of God, make of the entire Lenten Season a period of special penitential observance. Following the instructions of the Holy See, we declare that the obligation both to fast and to abstain from meat, an obligation observed under a more strict formality by our fathers in the faith, still binds on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. No Catholic Christian will lightly excuse himself from so hallowed an obligation on the Wednesday which solemnly opens the Lenten season and on that Friday called "Good" because on that day Christ suffered in the flesh and died for our sins. In keeping with the letter and spirit of Pope Paul's Constitution , we preserved for our dioceses the tradition of abstinence from meat on each of the Fridays of Lent, confident that no Catholic Christian will lightly hold himself excused from this penitential practice."
The 1983 Code of Canon Law continues to explicitly specify the obligations of Latin Rite Catholics, noting that Eastern Rite Catholics follow a different set of practices for Lent.
Canon 1251: Abstinence from eating meat or another food according to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops is to be observed on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities; abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on the Friday of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Canon 1252: All persons who have completed their fourteenth year are bound by the law of abstinence; all adults are bound by the law of fast up to the beginning of their sixtieth year. Nevertheless, pastors and parents are to see to it that minors who are not bound by the law of fast and abstinence are educated in an authentic sense of penance.
***Also, as a side note, Fr. Gregory mentioned in a homily the other day that there is a distinction between the 40 days of penance and the liturgical season of Lent. Liturgically, Lent ends at the Holy Thursday liturgy. But, the forty days of fasting begin on Ash Wednesday, skip Sundays (Since fasting is not done on Sundays, for Sundays are celebrations of the resurrection--"Sunday, the "Lord's Day," is the principal day for the celebration of the Eucharist because it is the day of the Resurrection. It is the pre-eminent day of the liturgical assembly, the day of the Christian family, and the day of joy and rest from work," according to CCC1193) and go until the Easter Vigil. Fr. Gregory did the math on this, and that's the way we get forty days of fasting. (In the past, I had been told that because Lent ends at the evening on Holy Thursday, you can quit fasting. So, I was excited to hear this distinction of liturgical Lent vs. penitential Lent from Fr. Gregory).
It's pretty obvious that giving up sweets isn't mandated by the Church. So, why do so many people get this expectation that "Good Catholics give up sweets"? Maybe this is because giving up sweets is a Big Sacrifice for many people, so automatically it becomes a simple Lenten penance to remember and try to implement. But you know what? Sacrifice is not a "one size fits all" sort of scenario. Even though the whole meatless thing is a sacrifice for lots of people, it's not a sacrifice for vegetarians and vegans-so the ones whom I know usually give up something else on Fridays. And even though I technically could give up sweets in the Big Sacrifice of Lent, it's not exactly the best thing for me. I really started to think about this while participating in God Squad during my high school years.
God Squad is this epic program where students approach Lent like a sports season. Monday through Friday, the participating students would meet at school, pray Morning Prayer at 6:45 a.m., and then follow it with the specific activity of the day. Fridays, we would pray Stations of the Cross. Wednesdays, we would have Mass. Tuesdays, we would have a guided meditation during Adoration. That kind of thing. Anyway, each Monday, there would be donuts or pastries for us to eat. I remember the rationale behind this being that, since we were sacrificing much time and sleep in order to grow in this prayerful discipline, donuts were great to help give us a boost of cheer and motivation on those early Monday mornings.
Lent isn't just about sacrificing as much stuff as you can for the sake of denying yourself everything; it is a time of growth and repentance. Just take a look at the Gospel reading for the 1st Sunday of Lent this year:
The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him. After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the Gospel of God: "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel."
This repentance involves a transformation of the heart. And while fasting from food or drinks can help us with that repentance and discipline, it by no means is the only way to do so. To quote the USCCB, "During Lent, the Church asks us to surrender ourselves to prayer and to the reading of Scripture, to fasting and to giving alms."
Y'all know the three pillars of Lent? Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Through personal experience, I have found myself growing more when I try to work on these three different areas during Lent, rather than just giving up chocolate. Not only that, but growing up, my mom's famous advice was: "Don't make your Lenten sacrifice everyone else's." If denying myself chocolate every single day for Lent will help cause me to be crabby towards others, then it probably isn't the best thing in the world.
Instead of fasting from a food, I can fast from radio in the car, which then causes me to steep my life in more silence and less noise. Instead of fasting from social media, I can sacrifice my desire to crash in a comfy chair and instead walk to the chapel to pray. I can sacrifice time for random activities and instead make time to read a book that helps me grow in my spiritual life. There are so many ways, unique to my life, that I can sacrifice and try to grow closer to God in Lent. Instead of focusing on having certain practices to "compete" with other people, let's examine the ways in which God wants us to fall more madly in love with Him.
In my life, I find it a good sacrifice to sacrifice sweets a couple days a week as a little mortification during Lent, but my Lenten practices are more meaningful if I focus on becoming more merciful and loving towards others through concrete practices. For you, maybe giving up all sweets is the way in which God wants you to repent and grow closer to Him. Regardless of what you do or don't do for Lent, I encourage you to nurture a deeper spirit of prayer and love in your life in some way (I highly recommend the Divine Mercy Way of the Cross). Also, if you haven't done so, I recommend reading the Lenten Message from Pope Francis. Because he's awesome. And he gives great wisdom to keep in mind during this season of Lent, particularly in combating the spirit of indifference that pervades so many lives. Let's give ourselves wholeheartedly to God this Lent, so that we may grow more richly in His love and mercy towards others!