It’s estimated that the average American can save around $700 if they give up chocolate, fast food, alcohol, caffeine and cigarettes during Lent. In fact, many Catholics don’t only think about saving when it comes to giving something up for Lent, they also think about shedding some pounds, getting in shape or recommitting to their New Year’s resolutions.
Nonetheless, focusing on these goals is like buying a ticket to a football game and watching it on the nearest bar TV. It’s missing out on the real stuff.
What is the real stuff? The agape in Lent.
When John the Baptist’s disciples came to Jesus to ask him why his disciples didn’t fast, they got quite an unexpected answer: “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and they will fast” (Mt 9:14-15).
In other words, he meant the Church (that is, the bride) fasts because she wants him, and, why should she when she already has him?
“This means that from the moment the Lord ascends to heaven, the Church unites with Jesus in a special way, evoking his glorious return, and so we do penance to prepare ourselves and unite ourselves with him,” said Father Jose Antonio Caballero, theology professor at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver and parochial vicar at St. Pius X Parish in Aurora.
The relationship of the disciples with Jesus changes after the Ascension. They can no longer see him or touch him. They must now unite with him in a different way. This is where the agape comes in.
Agape is the highest form of love; it is self-sacrificing love, the love Christ showed for the Church and humanity. Uniting with Jesus is uniting with his love story, with his Paschal Mystery: His passion, death and resurrection.
In other words, the Lenten season is meant to help the Christian enter into the mystery of his agape love and entering into that mystery means becoming more in his likeness, loving with total gift of self. As Pope Benedict XVI said, “man and woman come to resemble God to the extent that they become loving people.”
“The real sense [of Lent] is to participate, prepare ourselves and walk with Christ,” Father Caballero said. “And let us remember what walking with God implies in the Gospel. He tells his disciples, ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’” It implies walking in his footsteps.
This brings about the greatest paradox. The less a Christian puts himself in the center of the universe, the more he knows himself; the more he dies to himself, and the more fully he lives.
Let this Lent go beyond giving up chocolate or trying a new diet. Think about replacing what is keeping you from loving Christ and others with Christ-like love. In the end, Lent is more about letting oneself be transformed than seeking to transform oneself.
What must be kept in mind, however, is that actions such as penance and fasting are the way a person opens his heart to God, to let him work wonders in and with him.
When a person does penance and sacrifices with Christ in the center, it gives meaning to all that is human: “Suffering, death, solitude, sickness…,” said Father Caballero, “We then learn to see everything in the light of Christ’s mystery. All of these realities are redeemed in its light. Given that Christ assumes even the consequences of our sins, he gives them a redemptive meaning. This is the truth that we proclaim.”
This is the real stuff. A true Lenten resolution will bring about an abundance of graces to him who longs to see his face.