This time of year, it’s really easy to look at our non-Catholic friends and relatives and get a bit jealous. On Fridays, they can have all the bacon cheeseburgers they want, and on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, they can stuff their faces to their hearts’ content.
We Catholics, on the other hand, have to restrain ourselves a bit during Lent. We have to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and we can’t eat meat on Fridays. Our Church basically makes us suffer through the pain of seeing others eat our favorite foods when we can’t, and many of us don’t like that. We want to be able to eat whatever we want whenever we want.
However, I would suggest that if we have this attitude, we’re looking at it all wrong. Instead of lamenting the fact that we have to make these sacrifices, we should be happy that we get to make them.
No, that wasn’t a typo. I really think we should be happy that we get to abstain from meat on Fridays and fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. That may sound like crazy talk, so let me use an analogy to explain what I mean.
Imagine there’s a really important boxing match coming up in a few months. In the time leading up to it, one fighter’s trainer keeps him to a strict training regimen, but the other’s lets him do whatever he wants. The first boxer gets up at the crack of dawn every day, avoids unhealthy foods, and stays away from anything that could hinder his progress even the slightest bit. In contrast, the other one trains a little bit every now and then and eats McDonald’s a few times a week.
When the day of the fight finally comes, it’s obvious that the first boxer is going to win, and when he does, he’s going to be super thankful that his trainer made him put in all that hard work. On the flipside, the other fighter is probably going to be mad at his trainer for letting him slack off. The truth is that victory only comes with hard work, and that’s true in more than just boxing.
It’s true in the spiritual life as well. We need to work hard to follow Jesus’ teachings and grow in holiness. If we slack off and lose our spiritual discipline, we’re not going to get to heaven. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts. Jesus said that we need to deny ourselves and take up our cross every day (Luke 9:23), and he meant what he said. Our calling is to be perfect (Matthew 5:48), and perfection takes hard work (of course, our work is empowered by God’s grace, but it’s still hard work).
During Lent, the Church is like a trainer who makes us do hard work even though we don’t want to. By requiring us to make sacrifices we don’t normally make, the Church is making sure that we follow Jesus’ command to deny ourselves so we can obtain the discipline to control ourselves and curb our sinful desires.
And if we follow the Church’s instructions and remain faithful throughout our lives, then when we get to the pearly white gates, we’re going to be very happy we made those sacrifices. Once we realize that they helped us get to heaven, we’re going to be very happy the Church made us do them.
But we shouldn’t wait until we die to be thankful for them. Since we can know here and now why Lenten sacrifices are so important for us, we should be thankful for them right now. We should recognize how important they really are, and we should be thankful that we get to make them and grow in holiness rather than lament the fact that we have to.