By: Anjanette Barr
I’ve spent a lot of time this year thinking about sacrifice and suffering. Thinking about the place they have in our individual and family lives. As a Protestant, Christ’s sacrifice was, of course, paramount in my understanding of God’s plan for the redemption of his people and this world he created. However, my own sacrifice didn’t come into the narrative very often.
If our duty to sacrifice was discussed at all in the Protestant churches I attended, it was often within the framework of the persecution that we can all expect as Christians as a consequence for living set apart in our ways from the rest of the world. It was difficult to discern the purpose of and place for other sacrifice, either the kind that is seemingly random that we all endure through things like illness and loss, or the voluntary kind. But in the Catholic tradition, we have an entire season centered around sacrifice. That has taken a lot of getting used to.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and includes forty days of penance (not counting Sundays) leading up to Easter designed to help us “unite ourselves… to the mystery of Jesus in the desert” (CCC no. 540), and encourage us to contemplate our mortality as well as the shocking way God made himself mortal for our sake.
The Church wants us to spend these days focused on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We have the opportunity to attend special Mass times like Ash Wednesday, and all of the services during Holy Week. Also, we are asked to embrace some kind of self-denial or take up something to bring us closer to Christ.
My children are all younger than the age of mandatory fasting requirements or abstinence from meat on Fridays, but I want to help them connect to this important season. The Church offers us many helpful tools beyond fasting. We can join in the ancient tradition of praying certain prayers like the rosary every day, or at certain times, like praying the Angelus at noon or 6 pm. We can walk the Stations of the Cross in some designated place like our beautiful Shrine of St. Therese, or even in our home. Also, we can participate in the yearly Rice Bowl campaign to learn about and pray for God’s people around the world while raising money to help Catholic Relief Services care for families and communities in poverty. I will be encouraging my children to keep track of little sacrifices they make for themselves and others by placing dry beans in a jar – that will then be exchanged for jelly beans on Easter morning.
With such an emphasis during Lent on giving of ourselves, I feel it’s essential for me to have a firm understanding of exactly why sacrifice is valuable, and to be able to pass that understanding on to my children in the many discussions this season brings about. I want them to understand that this season is a special gift – a time to allow ourselves the space to contemplate some of the more difficult aspects of life and death. It’s a time to embrace the invitation to take up our own crosses and follow Jesus in tangible ways. For my family, I want these sacrifices to also lead us toward the conversion of our own hearts. Because “without this, such penances remain sterile and false.” (CCC no. 1430)
Lenten sacrifice is not about impressing God (or earning jelly beans from our parents). In truth, we could not earn the favor God has bestowed on us if we were given a thousand Lents to observe whole-heartedly. He gave us the gift of himself long before we were able to respond to it. We don’t “give something up” at Lent, or participate in Lenten traditions to pay God back or justify his death. “Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator.” (CCC no. 2007) He has even gifted us these things we will be choosing to fast from during this season. He doesn’t need those things any more than we do; he is gifting us the ability to sacrifice so that we have another means of understanding him and his heart. He’s changing our hearts to look more like his.
So, Lenten sacrifice is in its essence about the same thing most important things are about: love. We remember Gods scandalous love for us and reflect it back to him and out to others through emulating his sacrifice on the cross in small ways. We join ourselves to him in his suffering, and in turn, we have an opportunity for even deeper joy as Easter dawns and Jesus conquers death on our behalf.
Anjanette Barr is a parishioner at St. Paul the Apostle in Juneau, Alaska. She is a wife, mother, writer, and recent convert to the Catholic Church. Anjanette can be reached at www.anjanettebarr.com