Dear Father John, My question is on behalf of my 11-year-old son, Matthew. Matthew decided to give up sweets for Lent. He did this completely on his own and just announced it on Ash Wednesday. (I am giving up my favorite indulgence, chocolate). At two weeks into Lent my poor little Matthew is in misery about wishing to have a dessert. I have coached him from different angles — “Look what a strong person you are becoming” or “Why don’t you choose a different sacrifice? You know you can change your sacrifice…” or “When you really want that sweet and you feel angry or desperate, think of Christ’s suffering for each one of us and relate his feelings to your own.” Do you have any advice for us? Matthew says that he’s doomed either way: if he continues to sacrifice desserts he will be miserable and if he changes his sacrifice he will be disappointed and ashamed that he could not keep up his sacrifice.
By the way, another thing we are doing for Lent is to read daily Mass readings first thing every morning before doing anything else. Matthew is really enjoying this! We are also planning to visit a nursing home and share our musical talents there.
Also, I have heard many people talk about Sundays being a feast day and that you may celebrate by indulging in whatever your Lenten sacrifice is. What are your thoughts on that?
It gave me a thrill to read your question. You and Matthew and your family are carrying the torch of our faith high and making it shine bright. How pleased our Lord must be with your efforts to live this season with fervor and meaning! You are living proof of what Pope Benedict XVI said in his inaugural homily: “The Church is young!”
Sundays Are Different
OK, down to business. Sundays in Lent are still Sundays, and every Sunday is a Solemnity, the most illustrious liturgical feast the Church can have. Sundays are Victory Days, the day of Christ’s victory (Resurrection) over death, sin, and evil. As his brothers and sisters, we are called to share in the victory and to celebrate it. That’s why Sundays need to be different in our lives (and a lot of benefits come with it when we actually make them different). So, yes, during Lent, it is a long-standing and meaningful practice to exempt ourselves from our Lenten sacrifices on Sundays. But that doesn’t mean we should over-indulge! We should enjoy the simple pleasures of life (like sweets) as an act of homage to God, an act of faith in his goodness and promise of salvation. Give yourself a whiff of heaven! Exempting Sundays from our sacrifices (for the right reason) actually helps keep our motivations healthy and supernatural during the rest of the week.
Your way of reminding Matthew of the reason behind his sacrifice is right on target. You and he (and all of us) must keep fresh the reason why we choose to give something up for Lent: because it will help remind us that earth is not heaven, and that we tend to be self-centered and self-indulgent (that’s why we whine when we don’t get our sweets). And it is precisely that tendency that hinders us from following Christ more closely and learning to love like him.
When a football player starts his pre-season practices, it’s really tough. He has to get up early, push his body hard, endure pain, sweat, and a rigorous schedule. Why would he do all of that? Because he wants to be the best football player he can be. And the fat and laziness that he has acquired during the off-season has to be purified for that to happen. It’s painful, but it has a purpose.
Our Lenten sacrifices are painful (that’s why they are called sacrifices), but they have a purpose: to get rid of the spiritual fat and laziness that inhibits us from loving as purely and energetically as Christ. St. Paul put it well: “I do all this for the sake of the Gospel, that I may share in its blessings. Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever” (1 Corinthians 9:24-25). And also: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” So, keep reminding Matthew of that!
Three other practical things may help him. If you and/or your husband will take on his sacrifice too, abstaining from dessert along with him, it will help him. It will also help him if he learns about the sacrifices of the saints. Do you ever read excerpts from the lives of the saints? If he likes the daily Mass readings, he may like these too. They remind us that we are part of a bigger story. And seeing how much our older brothers and sisters in the Church suffered out of love for Christ stirs and strengthens our hearts. Unfortunately, not all the versions of the lives of the saints are helpful in this regard. I recommend that you look at the “Emails from Uncle Eddy” at Catholic.net. I wrote them for college students, but I think Matthew may like them. Finally, try to teach Matthew what it means to offer up his sufferings and sacrifices. You can read more about that at this post.
And tell him that I will pray for him tonight during my adoration, and that in order to support him in his efforts to follow Christ more closely, I am going to add his sacrifice to my sacrifices for the rest of Lent: no more sweet desserts for this priest (till Sunday, that is)!
Yours in Christ, Fr. John Bartunek, LC, ThD