It’s two weeks now since Ash Wednesday, and most Catholics have given up some desirable thing as a sacrifice. For instance, most families I know (including my own) give up sweets. I can still remember very well, as a young person, what a great sacrifice this was! But why do we give up things we enjoy for Lent? Does God wish us to simply deny ourselves and practice self-control, leaving our desires unfulfilled? Or is there an even deeper and more profound purpose for Lenten sacrifices?
As a small person, I knew the purpose of sacrificing sweets for Lent. While it was certainly out of love for Jesus, I recognized the absence of candy at once. The desire for sweets would grow in the first few weeks as Lent progressed, and I had to keep saying “no.” Finally, it would become practically habitual towards the end of Lent so that it wasn’t such a big deal any longer. Then, Easter Sunday came, and chocolates and candy never tasted better! In essence, the sacrifice of sweets seemed to be a discipline that made me realize how much I valued sweets, and ultimately gave greater joy and pleasure to Easter candy.
In a sense, this childhood sacrifice points to the truth concerning the purpose of Lenten resolutions and sacrifices: that there is ultimately something much deeper than merely depriving ourselves of the satisfaction of fulfilling our desires. While self-denial and self-control are certainly the stepping-stones of Lenten sacrifice, is that really the whole purpose? If it is, how many of us go right back to those things we love and gave up as soon as Lent is over? It’s good practice and good for our souls during Lent, and we undoubtedly receive graces as fruits of these sacrifices even as Lent has passed, but, ultimately, why do we make Lenten sacrifices?
During Lent, we strive to purge away our sinfulness and open ourselves to receive God’s forgiveness, in order that we might draw closer to the Lord. We do this especially through fasting, prayer, and service. Fasting takes self-discipline to abstain from food, but, very often, our Lenten sacrifices involve a fasting from whatever we choose. By denying some of our desires, we will find ourselves hungry (perhaps literally). In sensing our hunger for things we’ve surrendered (such as candy or any other thing in this world), we will awaken in ourselves the opportunity to realize a far deeper hunger we have in our souls.
Where do we go when we are empty and in need? The best answer is to God in prayer. It is to God that we should go, because, in denying ourselves of what we know as “good,” we can more readily recognize our deeper hunger within for the Good, the Living God.
And God never wishes to deprive us of any grace, if only we turn to Him and spend time with Him, especially in prayer. Little by little, this time with God will become fruitful within us because we will slowly realize exactly what we have been desiring: God Himself. The fulfillment of this desire in our souls will fill us with graces, taking the dry “desert” of our souls, and filling it with greater things. Then, these graces, overflowing from our souls, strengthen us to go back into the world to serve and obey the second greatest commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Lenten sacrifice begins with deprivation, but that is not the whole purpose. God desires a deeper, closer union with us, forged in prayer, and made fruitful in service to others. But it is those acts of self-denial that help spur us on to recognize our deeper needs, obtaining the self-discipline in small things that we may have it in greater things, and persevere until we are filled with the grace of God. Lenten sacrifices lead to the graces and love of God, rushing to us from close discipleship of Christ, with which we desire our souls to overflow; but it is only in denying ourselves first that we can follow Christ so that He may fill our deepest desire.
 The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, (Matthew 22:39), National Council of the Churches of Christ, 1971, accessed 11 January, 2016, https://www.biblegateway.com.