Relationship, not sacrifice is at the heart of Lent

When we began Lent on Ash Wednesday, the Lord said to us, “return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments and return to the Lord, your God.” (Joel 2:12-13).

During Lent we strive to unite ourselves with Jesus’ experience of conquering temptation in the desert and pursuing the Father’s will, so that we can fully experience the joy and victory of Easter. The Scriptures and Fathers of the Church consistently recommend three forms of penance that help us on this journey: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

But before we can fruitfully carry out these forms of purification, we must rend our hearts. In the Jewish tradition, ripping one’s garments – known as keriah – is done when mourning a relative who has passed away. Today, some Jews specifically rip their clothes over their hearts if the deceased is one of their parents. The Scriptures mention this expression of grief several times, including Jacob mourning his youngest son Joseph when he thought he was dead, or King David rending his garments at hearing that Saul had died.

Even more important than this outward expression of grief is returning to God with our whole heart, tearing it away from any unhealthy desires and attachments. In his 2018 message for Lent, Pope Francis offers some insights into the ways people develop unhealthy attachments today by reflecting on the passage from Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus warns, “Because of the increase of iniquity, the love of many will grow cold” (Mt. 24:12).

The Holy Father echoes Jesus’ warning that there will be many false prophets who lead people astray. One kind of false prophet, which he calls snake charmers, are those “who manipulate human emotions in order to enslave others … with momentary pleasures” like dreams of wealth or the belief that they are self-sufficient and don’t need others. Pope Francis also alerts us to “charlatans” – people who offer “easy and immediate solutions to suffering that soon prove utterly useless.” Their traps include drugs, disposable relationships and the temptation of a “thoroughly ‘virtual’ existence, in which relationships appear quick and straightforward, only to prove meaningless!”

But despite these snares laid by the Devil and his false prophets, God the Father declares through the Prophet Joel that he is “gracious and merciful … slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment” (Joel 2:13). God’s mercy and love for us can transform our hearts, if we are willing to open them to him and deepen our relationship, especially through the Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

When it comes to prayer, pursuing a deeper relationship with God means going beyond our first inclination, which is to make ourselves the focus of our prayer and to even boast of our accomplishments. Instead, we should ask God to help us know him better, to experience a greater intimacy with each person of the Trinity. The great Doctor of the Church, Saint Teresa of Avila, calls this kind of prayer “mental prayer.” “In my opinion,” she said, “mental prayer is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.”

If we pray in this way, then our fasting and almsgiving will naturally flow from us as acts of love for Christ in others, rather than being a set of tasks or Lenten requirements to fulfill. Our hearts will be rent, and not merely our garments.

Fasting is another way for us to draw closer to God. Saint Augustine observed this when he wrote, “Fasting purifies the soul. It lifts up the mind, and it brings the body into subjection to the spirit. It makes the heart contrite and humble, (and) scatters the clouds of desire … .” By denying our appetites and giving up distractions, we can more clearly hear God’s voice and place ourselves at his service.

The final practice of Lent that conforms our hearts more to Jesus’ Sacred Heart is almsgiving. Pope Francis notes in his Lenten message that almsgiving “sets us free from greed and helps us to regard our neighbor as a brother or sister. What I possess is never mine alone.”

This other-centered approach will help us to draw closer to the heart of Christ, particularly if we follow the advice of Saint Mother Teresa. “It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving,” she was known to say.

As we seek to rend our hearts this Lent in preparation for Jesus’ Resurrection at Easter, let us remember that God desires to draw each of us closer to him. He is waiting for us to seek him out so that he can pour out his mercy, love and kindness upon us.

COMING UP: How to live Lent, according to the Catechism

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If there’s one thing we think we know about Lent, it’s that we’re supposed to “give something up.”

We’re not sure why, but we pick something we like to indulge in, and resolve to “fast” from Netflix or chocolate or cursing or (insert current obsession) for the next 40 days. We think this is living Lent, and that we’re being good Catholics, but mostly we feel like we are missing the point.

Always the sure guide, we turned to the Catechism of the Catholic Church for some help uncovering what Lent is all about, and for some specific suggestions on how to ensure we take advantage of the spiritual opportunities available to us during this liturgical season.

Enter the desert

Lent, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is a time during which “the Church unites herself … to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.”

Jesus was “driven by the spirit into the desert” after his baptism in the Jordan, and he remained there for 40 days in solitude, without eating. The 40 days were really a preparation for what came next—the temptations in the desert.

Jesus did not succumb to the temptations of Satan in the desert, which the Catechism says “anticipates victory at the Passion.”

Before the victory, however, there was the forty days of fasting and prayer, and it’s this mystery we are encouraged to unite ourselves to during the 40 days of Lent.

The Catechism suggests various specific practices for lent: “spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).”

We break these practices down into seven specific things you can do over the next 40 days to unite yourself to Christ in the desert, above and beyond just “giving something up.”


It should be noted that the first suggestion invites us to above all intensify our prayer life. To unite ourselves to the mystery of the desert means we are to enter the desert with Christ, and that means solitude, silence, and prayer.

This could mean dedicating oneself to prayer for a set time each day, making an effort to read Scripture, or spending an hour each week before the Blessed Sacrament. Look at what you currently do, and increase it a little bit.

Go on a retreat

Lent is the ideal time to get away from the normal routines of life for a few days and attend a spiritual retreat. Half-day retreats or parish missions are common during Lent, and are ideal moments to unite oneself to Christ alone in the desert.

Go to confession

Retreats are a good opportunity to also avail ourselves of “penitential liturgies.” This simply means, go to confession. If you can’t attend a retreat, take a half day or maybe a few hours to go over a thorough examination of conscience. Try to go to confession shortly afterward.

Make a pilgrimage

A pilgrimage is a physical journey to a holy place that reflects our spiritual journey toward heaven. Within the territory of the Archdiocese of Denver there are several holy places one could visit alone, or as a family, or as a parish community, that could serve as a destination for a half-day or day-long pilgrimage. Mother Cabrini Shrine is always a good choice, but also one could visit the Shrine of St. Anne, the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (and the tomb of Servant of God Julia Greeley), or the Parish Shrine of Our Lady Guadalupe.


It should be noted that fasting comes after suggestions to intensify spiritual and penitential practices, and before suggestions to give alms and do works of mercy. Fasting should be done within the context of prayer, repentance and almsgiving. Fasting without these other elements is simply exercising willpower.

Give alms

Giving to the poor is an essential duty of every Christian, and during Lent we are called to intensify the practice. Give to your parish, to Catholic Charities, to a food bank or to another charity of your choice. We often forget that giving alms can also include giving to a friend, family member or neighbor in dire need.

Give yourself

At the end of the list of penitential practices, the Catechism includes “charitable and missionary works.” These are works of service to the poor, or to your neighbor. The obvious suggestions include volunteering at a shelter run by Catholic Charities or your parish, or other charitable works.