Faith on the Quad The Season of Lent

With the celebration of Ash Wednesday on February 25, we find ourselves in the season of Lent, an annual season of repentance within the Church. Mass attendance on Ash Wednesday is not obligatory, yet more Catholics attend Mass on this day than on many Holy Days of Obligation. Why is this? What is it about receiving ashes on our foreheads and hearing a message of repentance that appeals to us? Perhaps it is the understanding we all know, deep down, that we are mortal. We will all one day die, and our bodies will turn to ashes, just like the ones we receive on our foreheads.

This is a powerful thought, yet we spend so little of our time thinking about it. We spend most of our day-to-day lives worrying about petty concerns, rarely stopping to slow down and look at the bigger picture. This is especially true of college students. We are young! We don’t want to think about death. We have our whole lives ahead of us – careers, marriages, families! We can worry about death later.

Often, we are only shaken out of this mentality when the serious illness or death of a loved one makes the reality of our mortality painfully present. We remember that we too will one day die – that day may be decades from now, or it might be just around the corner. Faced with this certainty of death, we are led to question our lives. What is the point of our existence? Is there anything beyond the grave?

Of course, our Catholic faith gives us the answers to these questions. But it is good for us to pause and reflect on them once in a while. Lent provides us with an opportunity to put our lives into proper perspective and refocus on what is really important. As college students, this is critical, because it is so easy for us to get caught up in the trivial matters of our lives.

So how do we effectively use Lent as a time of spiritual nourishment? Lent is traditionally a time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These are our spiritual tools, and we should make the most of them. Of these three, it seems that fasting is the least understood, at least among college students. Most people I talk to seem to understand the importance of prayer and almsgiving, of keeping a strong relationship with God through praise, thanksgiving, repentance, and petition, as well as imitating the generosity of God by sharing the earthly goods we have with those who are less fortunate. But for some reason, I have noticed many people questioning the idea of fasting. Why should we deny ourselves something that is good for us? How does this practice help us?

In his Lenten Message for this year, Pope Benedict XVI speaks on the importance of fasting, saying, "Denying material food, which nourishes our body, nurtures an interior disposition to listen to Christ and be fed by His saving word." Through fasting from material food, we allow Christ to fill our spiritual hunger. Fasting helps us detach ourselves from the material world in order to focus on the divine. In addition, by depriving ourselves of something appealing, we develop a stronger self-discipline in order to resist temptation.

We fast during Lent to recall Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert before He began His public ministry. For Christ, this was a time of preparation and strengthening for things to come. We too can use fasting as a tool for spiritual strengthening. I encourage all Catholics, particularly college students, to take fasting seriously this Lent. With a deeper understanding of the graces and strengths we can gain through this practice, let us use fasting, along with prayer and almsgiving, to keep Christ the focus of these next 40 days.

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