Choosing Lenten practices for 2010 led me to look back over the years at all the ways and means of entering into the spirit of the season. I have a more mellow view of the days when we gave up candy for Lent-even saving some of it until Easter. What excitement when Easter came and candy flowed again. Not a bad pattern of sacrifice and its results.

There was a time beyond childhood, in entering the spirit of Lent, when it seemed best to break a bad habit and/or develop a good one. That cut closer to the bone, and it was harder to keep. I can’t remember what habits were nipped or grew as a result of that choice of Lenten practice. Nothing so vivid as the candy sacrifice.

What have these memories yielded in 2010? A look at the Gospel of Ash Wednesday highlights the constant refrain that the liturgy has reinforced over the centuries: prayer, fasting, almsgiving. And translating those good habits into life in our times surely will put into focus the new commandment that Jesus gave at the Last Supper, a commandment that tells us of God’s expectations of us: A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you.

Does my fasting from food, drink, or other treat affect the “other” we are to love? Can we aim our good habit at relieving the deprivation others suffer? I don’t know for sure, yet I can ask God to receive this small sacrifice and gift on behalf of others.

Jesus fasted in the desert to prepare for the temptations he encountered and that we read of in the first Sunday of Lent. His fasting is all the more powerful as a model, since he, like us, in his everyday life, did not scorn the meals that are our everyday nourishment and the food and drink that make a happy setting for celebration on special occasions.

Prayer and almsgiving more readily reveal how we can express God’s love (love as Jesus has loved) through our praying for and giving to others. More than praying for, we can enter into Lenten prayer with the desire to encounter God more deeply-as the “You” in my prayer. Besides a time set aside for prayer, attention to God, the one who is with us-God as “you”–establishes a direct connection. That habit of direct address in prayer may bring the joy of something like a face-to-face encounter.

Recently, we’ve all been faced with the almsgiving needed for victims of the Haiti earthquake. It didn’t take a Lenten practice to impel us give to those in dire need. Lenten almsgiving may ask us to take another look at sharing our resources, material and personal, with others. Perhaps we can build a habit of donations on a regular basis to those in need (Catholic Relief Services, Salvation Army, local food pantry) something like the dollars-per-month solicitations used by not-for-profits (like PBS).

Donations of time, attention, and kindness to those in need of these things is personal almsgiving, equally a gift from our resources. And they fulfill Jesus’ new commandment.

In another context, Samuel Johnson said, “These things are not good because they are commanded; they are commanded because they are good.”

What’s the outcome? Jesus says “Your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”

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