Tuna Fish, Chocolate and Pennies: The Meaning of Lent

I have few memories of Lent as a child, but there are a couple things I will always associate with this particular season: tuna fish hot dish, no chocolate and digging through my piggy bank. I know I didn’t understand what tuna fish, chocolate and pennies had to do with Jesus or with getting ready for Easter. But, I was told that Jesus died for me and it was the least I could do to show Him I loved him and appreciated his sacrifice. I wasn’t going to argue with that! So I ate my tuna fish and peas, I didn’t eat chocolate and I diligently searched for pennies—all without understanding why I would do such seemingly random things.

Lent, for me, became a time of year that meant you didn’t do the things you wanted to do and you did the things that you didn’t want to do. As I got a little older, I came to realize that eating tuna fish and peas was “abstaining” from meat on Friday and not having chocolate was a way to “fast” the other days of Lent. I started to apply the rules or Lenten obligations to the actions, but still didn’t understand what this had to do with my love for Jesus. To this day, I’m not sure if my inability to make the connection was because generally children aren’t able to grasp more abstract concepts or if I just wasn’t listening and only paid attention to the “rules.” Either way, it took a long time before the season of Lent seemed to have any purpose other than to make life less enjoyable.

Over the years, I have studied more closely the Lenten practices of our faith and have had many more years to personally experience the season of Lent. Looking through a purely academic or historical lens, we can see that the “obligations” or rules of Lent have changed and evolved since the time of the early church communities. Although fasting has always been part of these sacred practices, the rules of “fasting” have changed with time. These changes have sometimes left confusion as to what it means to fast and to abstain. Just to be clear, the Church currently tells us that we as Catholics are to:

1. Fast and abstain on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday

2. Abstain every Friday of Lent

Fasting is obligatory from age 18 until age 59. When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal. He or she may also have two smaller meals, but not to equal a full meal. Abstaining from meat is obligatory for those who are age 14 and older. Those are our “obligations.”

Please don’t misunderstand me. I believe it is important that we know the definition and the requirements of these obligations. However, I believe it is essential that we understand the purpose of these actions and the other actions we are called to during Lent. Without an understanding of purpose, fasting and abstaining simply become something we do that makes life less enjoyable. We risk letting our Lenten practices be something we do so we can place a check mark next to it on our list of “What A Catholic Does,” all the while hoping we can find a loophole to get around the rule. We can follow the letter of the law without ever touching upon the spirit of the action.

In addition to fasting, we are also called to pray and give alms during these 40 days before Easter. Of course, this is something we should be doing year round. Again, without an understanding of what we are striving to achieve, these actions can simply become things we do because we are “suppose to” and become just one more activity to add to our very busy lives. Pray more? Sure, I can throw in an extra “Our Father” at bedtime. Give alms? Okay, I’ll grab some can goods out of my cabinet and drop them in the food box at church. Both of these actions are good and follow the requirement of what we are called to do—but is that the true purpose of Lent?

When we engage in these activities without engaging our hearts and heads to reflect on a deeper meaning, we may miss the opportunity to strengthen our relationship with Christ. We risk not growing and developing as one of His followers. These actions begin to make sense only if they bring us closer to Christ and they help us to examine our behavior and attitudes to see what we need to do or to change to become better Christians.

If on Fridays during Lent I replace meat with a wonderful lobster dinner, abstaining loses its purpose and its potential for change in my life. If, however, my meals are simple and truly sacrificial and I take the time to think about why I am doing this, it could lead me to think about those who cannot afford a filling meal. As I consider those who are hungry, it should naturally lead me to prayer and to action that will help those in need.

When I engage my heart and head, I see that tuna fish, chocolate and pennies do help me to grow as a follower of Jesus. These relatively simple actions can lead to radical change in my life as a Catholic. I encourage you to take the time to reflect and pray about the “tuna fish” and “chocolate” in your life and see the powerful impact this can have on you. May God bless you this Lenten season with the wisdom and insight needed to help you grow in faith and love.

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