The Three Pillars of Lent: Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving
Lent is a privileged time of the year during which we are called to unite ourselves more closely with Christ in His forty days of fasting and prayer in the desert and give of ourselves just like he gave himself for our salvation. It is an intense moment of penitential practice with prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These three pillars were an important part of the religious practice of the Pharisees (Lk. 18:9-14), yet Christ warned His followers: unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 5:20). One then wonders how these religious practices did not translate into a saving righteousness for the Pharisees? Christ tells us: “… when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you… do not pray to be seen by men or heap up empty phrases… when you fast do not look dismal or disfigure your face…” By pointing out the contradictory ways of the Pharisees, Christ is not setting aside these spiritual practices, rather He is showing us His followers how to reap the full spiritual benefits thereof. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are interior forms of penance of the Christian; they express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others.”
The foundation of prayer is humility; first recognizing that we do not know how to pray as we ought, and the realization that it is a free gift of ‘God who thirsts that we may thirst for him.’ As Jesus told the woman at the well, ‘if you knew the gift of God and who is asking you… you would have asked him, and he would have given you the living water.’ Lent affords us the opportunity to be more watchful in prayer and with the help of God ‘reflect upon our habits and sins.’
The practice of fasting during Lent, according to Pope Francis, “makes sense if it really chips away at our security and, as a consequence, benefits someone else, if it helps us cultivate the style of the Good Samaritan, who bent down to his brother in need and took care of him.” Consideration of what to abstain from during Lent should not be solely about giving up something, it should be about less obsession with the self, and focus on how to ‘master one’s instincts and freedom of heart.’
The practice of “giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God.” A good practice of almsgiving involves giving something of ourselves, something that costs us, and so imitate our Lord who loved us and gave himself up for us. Jesus our Lord has taught us how to pray, fast, and give alms. The period of Lent is an opportunity to intensify these practices. May we approach this Lent with filial boldness and stay watchful with our Lord, so that we may experience true conversion of heart and attain the true reward of the heavenly kingdom.