There are many good and fruitful reasons for the practice of giving up something during Lent: strengthening our willpower (spiritual, mental and physical); ‘fasting’ in an attempt to follow Christ’s journey in the wilderness; offering this act of abstaining as a form of penance; and so on. But there is one reason I rarely hear – I am giving this up, I am sacrificing, for the one I love – God.
Love, as St. Thomas Aquinas in His Summa Theologica discusses, is willing the good of another. For mankind to love like this we desire to forego ourselves for that other person; or as Ernest Hemingway puts it in A Farewell to Arms: ‘When you love you wish to do things for. You wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve.’  This pure love, that mankind strives to find and to give, is probably best shown in marriage; mutual self-sacrifice for the good of the other and of course both sacrificing for children. But it is more than the desire of spouses and families, it is the hope of mankind in all its variations. It is a love that consumes one for the other, joyfully! Bishop Fulton Sheen describes it beautifully when he wrote: ‘Love (Charity) is to be measured, not by what one has given away, but by what one has left.’
In Lent we strive to come closer, by purification and reconversion to God – our truest love. We hope to return to Him what He has given us; knowing that we could never reach that level – after all: ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.’ But we try nonetheless. We try to answer what St. Josemariá Escrivá asked most succinctly: ‘Christ died for you. You…. what should you do for Christ’.
So, when I hear people discuss what they are giving up for Lent I wonder if this reason, this act of love, is part of their sacrifice? In reflecting on the reasons why we give up something I have, over the years, heard a few rationales that has caused me stop and take note. But first, these observations are not to disparage the people who have followed these types of sacrifices; that they have attempted a sacrifice places them in the beautiful minority of Catholics who try – studies show most don’t try.
I have heard people say that they are giving up something that is sinful. I ask myself how is giving up something that is not only bad for the individual but for everyone sacrificing oneself for a loved one? After all, sin does damage to the sinner and weakens and sickens the whole body of Christ; so giving up a sin isn’t a sacrifice it is a healing. To put it in other words: we shouldn’t be sinning anyway.
Others say that they are giving something up that (though not sinful) isn’t good for them. It might be something important to give up but if you know it is bad for you and you shouldn’t have it or do it – how is that in the spirit of love? It isn’t really sacrificing only for the good of the other – it is done primarily to help yourself – there are strings attached.
Some people have told me that they give up the same thing every year – which in and of itself doesn’t mean an act of love is missing; but it runs the risk of losing that act. What was a sacrifice in year one and two can become after that just a minor inconvenience and maybe even something to look forward to. There is even the chance of being pleased with yourself that you can handle it with no problem. If that happens there is no true sacrifice for another. It becomes a spiritual version the old child’s game of seeing how long you can hold your breath.
No, for me, these decisions for giving something up for Lent don’t really have love of God in their reasoning; or run the risk of losing it. Over the years I am finding that giving up something for Lent needs to be a privation of something in our daily lives, something that we would miss, and something that is hard to do. But most importantly our sacrifice for love of God needs to be felt and understood as a sacrifice for love of God. Christ did just that; He gave up His daily activities for love of you and me. Though He did this by giving up His life, we can return His love by small sufferings of foregoing some normal routine, event or item; all the while offering them for love of Him.
Brothers and sisters, as we go forward not only on our Lenten experience but our journey towards God; let’s strip away the fear that blinds us and the pride that stops us from true and loving sacrifices. Let’s ask Jesus for the strength to offer sacrifices for love of Him. Let’s give up parts of our lives for love of His life; so that, when our time comes and our love is measured there is nothing left.