Why does the Church ask us to suffer in Lent?
by Monsignor Gregory Schlesselmann
the very nature of the penance, we are joined more deeply to Christ who is the
source of our freedom at the very heart of his liberating Pascal mystery.” –Monsignor Gregory Schlesselmann
Every year on Ash Wednesday the Church invites us to hear the same passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel (Mt. 6:1-6, 16-18) in which Jesus exhorts us to give alms, pray and fast with the right attitude and disposition. By saying “when you give alms,” he assumes that we are doing all three but warns us against performing these religious acts in a hypocritical way. We might ask the question why he wants us to be doing these three at all.
Regarding prayer and giving alms, we probably see the need quite readily. We know that praying is the most fundamental way we can experience our relationship with God and helping the poor is a hallmark of the disciple of Christ. But why fast? Why go without food or other bodily comforts, for example on days like Ash Wednesday or Good Friday? Even more broadly, why voluntarily take on suffering of one sort or another (usually called penances) especially when there seems to be plenty of hardship in life already without adding to it?
The short answer is so that we can be free, because only those who are free can love God and neighbor. But in order to answer the question how penances such as fasting help us achieve freedom, we need to be clear about what we mean by fasting.
It is the voluntary renunciation of food or other source of physical or emotional pleasure and/or comfort for a spiritual motive. What is renounced can be either in quantity or quality and should be undertaken in a balanced prudent way. The resultant discomfort or even pain is accepted in a spirit of humility and joined to the Crucified Jesus in reparation for our sins and for the salvation of souls. In short, we welcome Jesus crucified to live his salvific Passion in our own lives. Thus, by the very nature of the penance, we are joined more deeply to Christ who is the source of our freedom at the very heart of his liberating Pascal mystery.
Secondly, by freely choosing to forego being satiated and comforted, we are allowing ourselves to experience the truth that our happiness does not depend upon physical or emotional well-being. It highlights in a concrete way the truth that, while important in themselves and in their proper context, our bodies and emotions are secondary to our spirits, and that being in harmony with God is true freedom, and that being rooted in love is true happiness (Pope St. John Paul II, General Audience, Jan. 30, 1980).
Since the call to love is our most fundamental call, freely embraced penance aids us to mature in our capacity to give of ourselves without thought of return or benefit (even though we do benefit!) – in short, to grow in authentic love.
Now we can answer the question of why the Church invites us to take on voluntary suffering during Lent. The Church wants us to grow and mature in authentic love and thus to progress along the pathway of fulfilling our true destiny. She wants her children to be free and fully alive in Christ! This Lent, let us all make the effort to embrace the practices of this holy season and really grow. Let us make this Lent the best Lent ever!
Monsignor Gregory Schlesselmann serves as the director of the permanent diaconate program and serves at the NDSU Newman Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: If you have a question about the Catholic faith and would like to submit a question for consideration in a future column, please send to email@example.com with “Ask a Priest” in the subject line or mail to New Earth, 5201 Bishops Blvd. S, Suite. A, Fargo, ND 58104, Attn: Ask a Priest.