Thoughts on Lent Activities
and How to Perform Them
There are 3 primary Lent activities.
- Fasting, and
These three are helpful to our spiritual growth - our interior growth - and while they are helpful in Lent, they really should be practiced regularly throughout the year.
Lent is a good time to of check-up and renewal, time to brush up a bit if we've been slacking.
On this page I will focus on the "how". How to keep a true Lent. How we should be doing our Lenten activities.
In fact, as I explain below, it's a secret taught by Jesus himself.
Other Lent Activities
But first, here's a list of more Lenten practices and activities, related to the 3 main ones listed above, to help us in our spiritual growth. No doubt, there are many other practices that are useful in our homes, churches, schools, and especially in our individual spiritual journey.
The Big Secret to Lenten Activities
- Sacrifice and Penance. This would be included in the proper understanding of fasting.
- Bible Studies. This is how we learn what we are supposed to do, and how we are to do it. For example, we learn from Christ how to properly pray, fast, and give alms, as discussed below.
- Meditation. This is an important Lent activity. In fact, it's an important part of prayer, a prayer of the mind and heart, more than our lips, where we take time to ponder and reflect. God often speaks to us through his inspirations, usually without words, when we quiet ourselves from external and internal noise and distractions, and want to be united to him.
- Spiritual Retreats. This is a special Lenten activity. This can be a great help to acquire good habits of the interior life. It can provide a better atmosphere for meditation, reflection, and prayer, and be a good time of learning, mentor-ship, and spiritual growth. Retreats can be held with others, in a more public setting, or can be private, when you are alone for a day or 2 or longer. When under the guidance of someone else - such as retreat director or spiritual counselor - it is usually called a guided or directed retreat. Above all, we must pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. There are retreat houses and retreat camps for those who wish to leave the concerns of family, home and business for a while.
- Examination of Conscience. Every day we should see where we are failing, and before we go to bed, we should tell God we are sorry, and ask his forgiveness. During Lent, especially during a spiritual retreat, it's an excellent opportunity to see where we are wasting God's gifts - his graces and blessings, especially in the use of time. Are we keeping his commandments? If not, what do we need to change?
- Confession of Sins and Spiritual Direction. We need to be sorry for our sins, and ask God's forgiveness. Repentance and changing our life is an essential Lenten activity. Not even God can forgive our sins, unless we are repentant of them, and ready to change our life. But often, like David, we are weak and are blind to where we are failing, until someone else points it out. That is why we should confess our sins not only to God, but also to the right people, such as a pastor, so that we can be sure of our repentance, receive guidance on the right path, and frankly, be held accountable for our actions. Many christians, even pastors, stray from the faith because they do not get others to hold them accountable, and do not receive the advice, support, and encouragement of true mentors and friends, who are willing to ask the tough questions, show tough love if necessary, and be there to help them especially in difficult and challenging times. If mentor-ship, accountability, and are critically necessary to run a successful business, how much more important is this in the spiritual life, especially since all christians are called to some degree of ministry and service, in the business of the Lord.
- Missions, Lectures, and Special Sermon Speakers. These make excellent Lent Activities. Because we are creatures of habit, we can easily take for granted our regular pastors and teachers. Sometimes, having a missionary come to give lectures or seminars can be very helpful to renewing our spiritual fervor. I always looked forward to hearing the stories of missionaries and what it was like serving God and the people in other countries. Even a pastor from a different parish coming to preach is a special event. Remember Jesus said that every scribe instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like a householder bringing forth from his treasure new things and old. (Matthew 13:52) So church and school don't have to be boring.
- Attendance at Church, especially on Sundays (or Saturdays in some denominations) and during Holy Week. This is an important Lent activity not to be overlooked, which should be whole year around. Not only have we a private duty to personally worship God, but we also have a public duty as well, because God made us as social beings. As a society, we owe God our worship, thanks and appreciation for his many blessings. Many times, even when we are going through hard times, and especially at those times, by coming to church in a good spirit, we receive invaluable insights and instructions, as well as the encouragement and good example of others. In the bible, we see God over and over take a very strong stand on keeping his day holy and not working, for which we will be blessed. Otherwise, we will suffer the harsh punishments he outlines.
The big secret to keep a true lent, and in fact all year round, is to keep it a secret !
(As best we can, that is.)
In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) - the first public sermon Jesus preached - Jesus speaks of each of the 3 major Lent activities: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, one right after the other. (Matthew 6:1:18) In each of them, he tells us the importance of taking care that we do not do this things to show off to other people, but for God. Else, we will lose our reward, because we will have received it already from other people.
The shallow, short-lived praise of men in this world cannot begin to compare to the reward God wants to give us in heaven - forever.
3 Great Men of Prayer
3 men in history were called by God to a complete fast for 40 days. It is interesting that each of them were called into a wilderness or mountain completely away from all civilization, in order to walk with God in the spirit:
A Little Question on this Secrecy
- Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:28)
- Elias up to Mount Horeb (1 (or 3) Kings 19:8)
- Jesus in the Wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 1:14)
For some time, I could not understand why, if Jesus says to do these things in secret, why did he in the same sermon, just a little before, tell us not to hide our light under a bushel, but to let our good deeds shine out for all to see? (Matthew 5:14-16)
Some Possible Answers
Over time, and with prayer and reflection, I came to understand that we should not try to do things just for men to see, and in those activities like personal prayer and fasting, we shouldn't try to get attention. We should try to find a private place to pray, if at all possible. But we can pray always interiorly, and make everything we do a prayer, as we go about our duties, in our walk with the Lord inside us.
But, sometimes, what we do is seen, such as when we attend Church. Still, we should not dress up just to show off. That would be a terrible mistake.
But we can and should "let" our light shine before men. We can "allow" our light to shine when this happens. But we shouldn't "make" or "force" our light shine, trying to get others to notice us.
In all Things, to God be the Glory
Really, God is the one whose light should be shining in us. That is really his job. Our job is to let him shine, and with his help and grace we must work and pray, co-operate with him to be his instrument and vessel, and not block his light.
If God so chooses, he arranges when he wants others to notice, so that others may be encouraged by our good example. If the need arises, He will show us when he wants us to have a public ministry.
Even in giving alms to the poor, it's pretty hard to do it secretly if you volunteer in a food bank, or
bring a box of food to a neighbor in need. But you don't go tell the neighborhood, and certainly don't put it in the newspaper, or blow a trumpet, as the pharisees were doing in Jesus' time.
Unless - of course, unless - God wants you to. Like the Apostle Paul writing his people to imitate him as he imitates Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1) Or telling of his many trials. (2 Corinthians 11: 23-33) But even then, Paul asks for special prayers (Romans 15:30-32) and fights the good fight, lest in preaching to others, he became worthless in God's sight. (1 Corinthians 9: 26-27)
Lent Activities - The Interior Life
In heaven, we will see more good done inside a soul, than in all the external church organizations put together, although they are very important and have their place.
Jesus said to his followers, the Kingdom of God is within. (Luke 17:21) The ultimate purpose of the church organization and church buildings is to bring God into in souls. Church buildings don't get saved, only people.
But we can't deny the building is helpful. God himself gave the details how to build his temple.
Jesus did his greatest work on earth for the souls of people, even though he and his followers were often not welcome in the local synagogue buildings, and even in the great temple building itself.
Jesus, Model of the Hidden Life
Jesus spent 30 years in work, prayer, and suffering, basically unknown to the world.
He only spent a fraction of that time, the next 3 years, in his public life. And even then, the first 40 days was spent in the wilderness alone with God, fasting and praying.
And even during the 3 years of his public ministry, teaching, healing, miracles, Jesus took much time, and often all night long, in prayer to God.
Maybe, we will find out in heaven a little bit of the interior growth, challenges, temptations, and victories of the hidden Life of Christ.
The Hidden Life of Joseph and Mary
We don't know a whole lot about the life of Joseph and Mary. They were blessed to have Emmanuel, God with us.
We do know, in the Gospel, Joseph is called a just man. (Matthew 1:19) This is found very few times for other specific individuals in all of scripture.
When Mary went to help her cousin, her cousin Elizabeth filled with the Holy Spirit called Mary blessed, because she was carrying God within her. Mary also was filled with the Holy Spirit, saying all generations would call her blessed because God did such great things for her. (Luke 2:39-55)
From the Heart
Several times, Luke mentions that Mary pondered these things in her heart. (Luke 2:19, 51)
And we know Mary suffered much in her heart - as all good mothers do - especially when her heart was pierced by a sword of sorrow at the suffering and death of Jesus, as Simeon had prophesied to her when Jesus was a baby. (Luke 2:35)
They Paid the Price
This family of three in Nazareth enjoyed the physical presence of God for 30 years. But they paid a high price.
We do know that publicly, they suffered incredible humiliation. Mary was considered an unwed mother, a prostitute, a criminal deserving of being stoned. Joseph was considered to have become the father of Jesus before he got married, and so he was also considered a criminal. And Herod wanted to kill the child Jesus.
Even when Jesus started his public life, 30 years later, this reputation was still going on. (Luke 3:23)
The Trials God Sends are the Best
It was probably a mercy of God that this family of 3 was forced to flee to Egypt, because of the danger to their lives if they went back to Nazareth too soon.
They lived in a brutal time, where their own government, and the government of Rome, had many spies and soldiers throughout the land, who would kill on a whim. And both governments were over-taxing the people, and seizing land, property, even people, even women and children, if the taxes were not paid. In fact, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, not Nazareth, because of the stipulations of a census and taxation from Rome.
They are an encouragement to us. Many times we cannot choose our own spiritual regimen, such as fasting and prayer.
"Circumstances are God's sealed orders," and they come in the form of unplanned sickness, disability, and other challenges.
Sometimes, it's just the boredom of a ho-hum job, a boring routine, of just doing the regular chores and duties of life.
Scorned by All
This small family of three were scorned by everyone. There were a few exceptions, people whom God showed the truth, such as Elizabeth and Zachary, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna in the temple, and the wise men. (Matthew 2; Luke 2)
The gossip must have been terrible. It must have made their work, their getting water from the well, and their daily life much more difficult, adding to their already great poverty, because nobody wanted to give them work, as Jesus was considered illegitimate.
When Jesus came to preach in the synagogue at Nazareth, his home town, the people wanted his miracles, because they had heard about them. But when Jesus started saying who he truly was, he drew out the true rage and hatred in their hearts, and they showed their true colors by casting him out of the town, and trying to kill him by throwing him off a steep cliff. (Luke 4:16-30)
It wasn't a passing thought, it was pre-meditated murder which had been in their hearts for years, a result of their great hatred and contempt for this poor family.
Now in Heaven
One day, we shall see the high places in heaven this family holds. We know Jesus sits at the right hand of his father in heaven, and that he is the true King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
What helped them through such difficult times, such a difficult life?
We shall see that they had a deep interior life, and received strength and grace and consolation in their walk with God.
Thank your stars, we'll get to see them and know them personally, and thank them for helping change the course of history in a powerful way - by the kingdom of heaven living inside them.
But why wait till heaven? Let's show our appreciation now! In fact, to wait until heaven is too late. Let's begin - or become better - in our life of true service - serving God with all our heart.
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