One of the traditional practices of Catholics is to “give up” things, to fast and abstain from material comforts and personal attachments. Although it should happen throughout the year, especially on Fridays which are penitential days, it most commonly occurs during the forty days of Lent. “What are you giving up for Lent?” is a question Catholics frequently answer as Ash Wednesday approaches.
But why do we give up things? What’s the purpose of avoiding meat, alcohol, chocolate, smoking, or increasingly these days, social media? There are at least three reasons for our Christian asceticism.
First, we give up things because it’s an exercise that strengthens us spiritually. Just as calisthenics strengthen the body, so too spiritual discipline strengthens the soul against temptation and sin. Our model is Jesus who fasted in the desert for forty days and forty nights and vanquished the temptations the Devil presented to him. In the discipline of giving up even minor things, we’re fortified in our life-and-death battle against Satan who continues to “prowl around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (I Pt 5:8).
Secondly, we give up things to protest the unhealthy obsession with material things so prevalent in our culture. How many of us are seduced by foolish spending on luxury items, by the mindless pursuit of more “stuff” we really don’t need. Materialism is a sin that weighs us down and holds us back. It’s an obstacle to the growth of lasting, spiritual values. “Man does not live by bread alone,” Jesus said. (Mt 4:4) Nor in fact do we live by all of the other “stuff” that clutters our lives.
Finally, our practice of asceticism helps us remember the plight of the poor and the needy, members of our human family who suffer terribly every day. When we make a little sacrifice, when we deprive ourselves of something we want or need, it serves to expand our horizons and to remind us of those in our world who lack even the basic necessities of life – water, food, clothing, shelter and health care. Our modest sacrifice is then best complemented by prayer and almsgiving, acts which also place us in solidarity with the poor.
So, why do Catholics give up things? For discipline, detachment and deprivation, important Christian virtues that have lasting value.
Something to think about: What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done for Lent?