Tomorrow being the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent, for the next six weeks or so many Christians around the world prepare themselves spiritually for the sacrifice that Christ made on Good Friday, when we believe He died for our sins, rising from the dead on Easter Sunday. In keeping with the penitential and sacrificial nature of these weeks, many will give up things they enjoy for this period. They will do so to try to find a way to suffer a bit, and reflect better on Christ’s own suffering, even if only in a small way.
This year I’ve decided to give up Facebook for Lent, something I’ve not done before, but have seen others do over the years. I am sure the withdrawal symptoms will be difficult, although the only real practical issue, i.e. blog publication across my social media platforms, is handled through the WordPress app. Thus, even though I won’t be “on” Facebook, posts will continue to appear each weekday.
I’ve also decided to take a slightly moderated view of the old “no reprieve” versus “Sundays don’t count” debate. There is an age-old argument among my fellow Catholics as to whether one can return to one’s “give-ups” on Sundays during Lent. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops answers the question for us thusly:
Q. So does that mean that when we give something up for Lent, such as candy, we can have it on Sundays?
A. Apart from the prescribed days of fast and abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and the days of abstinence every Friday of Lent, Catholics have traditionally chosen additional penitential practices for the whole Time of Lent. These practices are disciplinary in nature and often more effective if they are continuous, i.e., kept on Sundays as well. That being said, such practices are not regulated by the Church, but by individual conscience.
Sounds a bit like they’re dodging the question, doesn’t it? In truth, there’s good reason for such careful language, as we shall see.
Those of you giving up a food you like for Lent know how difficult that can be. One Lent I gave up coffee, which was pretty brutal, though perhaps the worst food give-up for me was when I gave up potatoes. I went so far as to check the labels of foods I bought to make sure there was no potato starch or the like in them. Turns out we use potatoes in prepared foods in this country almost as much as we use corn-derived products, by the way.
However the danger withsuch practices is getting to the point with our Lenten give-ups that we risk creating a compulsion out of what is supposed to be a pious act. In their answer to the question about Sundays in Lent, the bishops suggest that we have to make our own decisions, with respect to whatever practice we take on during this season. There is no requirement that one even have a “give-up”, after all, even if it is encouraged. The rules on these are not imposed from without, but rather from within: this is a time for personal growth, not a contest to see who can suffer the most.
Even when giving rules for practices which are in fact required during Lent, the Church does not impose a draconian standard. For example, although fasting for adults is mandated for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, that rule does not apply to the seriously ill, pregnant, or those with a medical condition requiring them to eat at certain times (e.g. diabetics.) Manual laborers are also exempt under certain circumstances, since no one wants an ironworker on the 49th floor of a construction site to become light-headed from not eating. Consideration is even given to those who are required to attend a social or business function, who cannot get out of said event without causing serious offense or negative repercussions.
When it comes to Facebook, which I use a lot – and not only for fun, either – it will be hard for me to adjust to daily life without it. It is certainly not my only outlet for connecting with a wider world, but it is an important way for me to keep up with what is going on with my family, close friends, and local contacts. It has also introduced me to, or allowed me to assist, many people I might not otherwise know or have stayed in touch with.
As a result, I’ve decided to go with a good piece of advice from a fellow Papist on the Sunday question, which is to take a half an hour before going to Mass on Sundays during Lent to check in on Facebook. Not to goof around, chat, or make new Bitstrips cartoons – more’s the pity – but to see whether anyone needs some help or encouragement. The hard-core Catholics among my readers will no doubt think this is a sign of weakness on my part, while the more laid-back Catholics will think this is too formulaic.
Yet such attitudes prove the point as to why the bishops are careful when it comes to the ins and outs of proscribing how to make Lenten sacrifices. We are each called to sacrifice in our own way, not to prove what a good Christian we are, but to try to be more like Christ. After all, even in His pain and suffering on His way to Calvary, and while hanging on the Cross, Christ took the time to try to comfort and give support to other people, whether it was the women of Jerusalem, St. Dismas (the “Good Thief”), or His Mother and St. John.
Truthfully, I can’t come anywhere near that level of sacrifice or help to others. My “give-up” is absolutely nothing but an insignificant little drop of rain in the ocean. Yet I do it because I love, and because I want to love better, as He did. Hopefully, that will be the end result of this Lenten experience.