As a child I observed the Lenten season by giving up candy or soft drinks or sugar in my coffee.
I began drinking coffee when I was eight years old. I always added sugar and milk. One Lent, when I was 10 or 11, I decided I would give up adding sugar and milk. I thought it a substantial penance. That first cup sans sugar was hard to swallow.
When finally Easter arrived I returned the sugar and milk to my first cup and discovered I no longer liked coffee with sugar and milk. From that point on I took it black and liked it that way. (Though I thought about adding sugar and milk as my Lenten penance the following year, I gave up something else instead.)
Every year the Liturgy of the Word for Ash Wednesday proposes almsgiving, prayer and fasting as appropriate Lenten penances. However, the Gospel for Friday after Ash Wednesday makes it clear that Jesus did not impose fasting on his disciples. It seems that even John the Baptist couldn't cope with such an omission: "Why do we and the Pharisees fast much, but your disciples do not fast?"
Jesus' response suggests that he wasn't opposed to fasting, but he did want to keep it in its proper place.
The traditional three practices (prayer, fasting and almsgiving) are good, but the reading from Isaiah for that Friday insists that there are practrices far more important in God's mind than these.
Speaking for Yahweh, the prophet explains, "This, rather, is the fasting I want: releasing those unjustly bound, sharing your bread with the hungry, and sheltering the homeless and the oppressed."
There is, therefore, the danger that our Lenten practices can become ends in themselves. We can become rather proud of our asceticism. We can begin to think we're good Christians, devout Catholics, because we persevere in giving up something for 40 days.
Every genuine Lenten sacrifice is meant to sensitize us to the bigger picture. God doesn't really care about my avoiding candy or eating fish on Friday if these acts do not lead me to greater love or charity or care of those in need.
In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council the Church simplified the laws of fasting during Lent and abstinence of Fridays. This loosening of the obligation of prescribed penances did not mean penance was unimportant.
The simplification of the mandated penances was to urge the individual Catholic to become more self-disciplined, to put asceticism in its proper context, to re-direct our Lenten observance from self-serving obedience of a law to outgoing-service of our brothers and sisters.
Most of us have to admit that abstinence from meat on Friday is hardly penitential when we choose instead the Admiral's Platter at Red Lobster.
Pope John Paul II said repeatedly that Catholics were not to be overly scrupulous about observing Lent's fasting and abstinence laws. Substantial observance was sufficient fulfillment of the mandate.
The Church's attitude about Lenten Friday abstinence from meat is obvious this year. Friday, March 25, 2011, is the Solemn Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord. The significance of this celebration absolves us of the obligation to abstain from meat on that Friday.
It is a challenge to most people's faith to think that God would send anyone to hell for eating meat on Friday.
Hell is reserved for those who are hateful, indifferent to the needy, abusive of others, lustful, greedy, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Fasting, almsgiving and prayer must lead us to love, generosity, compassion, respect, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
I have a hunch God laughed that Easter morning when I once again put sugar and milk into my coffee cup and immediately discovered I didn't like the taste. He must have thought, "Young Norman thought he was doing me a favor by giving up his sugar and milk. Instead he did himself a favor. He finally found out how coffee is supposed to taste! If only he would figure out what penances are really all about! Bless his heart!"