Why Do Catholics Observe Lent? *

The opening chapter of Baruch tells how on one occasion the Jewish exiles in Babylon “wept and fasted and prayed before the Lord, and collected such funds as each could furnish” (1:5-6). That one sentence summarizes the common penitential disciplines of God’s people since ancient times. During the season of Lent especially, Catholics continue to express sorrow for their sins, and a desire to draw closer to God, through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

Why should we set aside special days and seasons for these activities? Shouldn’t we be doing such things as a way of life? Of course. But with our human nature being weak as it is, the Church recognizes that if we have no time set aside especially for these disciplines, many of us will be tempted to neglect them altogether.

In the life of ancient Israel, God himself set the precedent for designating special days for penance. Through Moses he commanded the people to observe an annual Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) “on the tenth day of the seventh month” (Lv 16:29). On this day, the people were to “mortify themselves (that is, eat no food) and do no work, so they could devote the day to repentance and prayer, asking God to cleanse them of their sins (see Lv 16:29-34). In later times, the Jewish people set aside additional days and seasons of penitential fasting (see Zec 8:19 and the footnote).

The practice of penitential days and seasons was continued by the early Christians (see Acts 13:2-3) and became an established tradition in the Church. Lent, observed in the forty days before Easter, developed as a way of recalling our Lord’s own forty days and nights of fasting in the wilderness while he prayed and battled with the Devil (see Lk 4:1-13; see also “Why Do Catholics Put Ashes on their Foreheads?”)

The value of prayer is immediately obvious. But why, we might ask, are fasting and almsgiving ways to holiness? When we make small sacrifices such as giving up food and giving away alms, we detach ourselves from the things that we tend to love too much (see Ez 16:49)—thus making more room in our lives for God.

Other related scriptures: Jgs 20:26; 1 Kgs 21:9, 12, 27; Ezr 8:23; Neh 1:4; 9:1; Est 4:15-16; 9:31; Is 58:1-12; Jer 14:12; Dn 9:3; Jl 1:14; 2:12-17; Jon 3:5; Mt 4:1-11; 6:16-18; 9:14-15; Mk 2:18-20; Lk 3:37; 5:33-35; 18:12; Acts 14:23; 27:9.


Catechism of the Catholic Church: 538-540; 566; 1095; 1430-1439; 1460; 1490; 1969; 2043; 2447; 2462


*Quoted from The New Catholic Answer Bible. Wichita, Kansas, Fireside Catholic Publishing, 2005. www.firesidecatholic.com #N-3


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