Over the last few years, I’ve reformed the way I observe Lent. Previously, I could see that I was using the liturgical season simply to break bad habits or lose weight or accomplish some other self-focused thing, and it wasn’t as spiritually productive as it should’ve been.
So I started a tradition for myself: I planned out weekly observances—small, changing sacrifices that keep me thinking and meditating—paired with special prayer intentions that remind me to offer up my small sufferings throughout the season.
It’s been really fruitful for me. It has been so helpful in bringing me out of myself for Lent, and inspiring me to focus on the greater world and the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice for me.
But, going on three years of this, I wanted to change it up a little for 2021. After all, it’s important to keep your mind guessing—otherwise, routines become so routine as to almost go unnoticed.
With that in mind, I’m holding myself accountable for following through on all three traditional Lenten observances—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—in new ways.
This led to my personal theme for Lent 2021: Lift Up, Give Up, and Take Up.
I’ve created a free, downloadable worksheet you can use to create a plan like mine this year, if it interests you. Please find it here! And feel free to share, too. The file features a filled-out example, as well as a blank sheet for you to complete on your own.
Now, let’s dive into the theme below.
During Lent, the penultimate goal is to meditate on Christ’s sacrifice for us, and to remind ourselves of our urgent need for that sacrifice. It all comes down to this.
Sometimes, we (or at least I) get so caught up in choosing a personal sacrifice that we forget how it’s supposed to mirror the ultimate sacrifice: death on a cross, willingly endured for the salvation of the world.
That’s why the first tenet of Lenten observation is prayer. We are challenged to lift up our attention to the Lord in a special way during this season. How else can we begin to appreciate the profound sorrow of Good Friday or the unequivocal joy of Easter Sunday?
This is the one we know well, right? During Lent, we choose a sacrifice that will help make us better people and reflect the selflessness of Christ.
Lent is a time to intentionally give up a guilty pleasure, bad habit, or vice that draws your attention inward instead of inspiring you to reflect God’s love outward.
This second Lenten observation—fasting—helps cleanse the soul and bring our mental focus onto faith. When we fast, we turn away from our physical demands in favor of the demands of the soul. In this way, we nurture unity between body and spirit, because we’re reminding ourselves that we can never be fulfilled in this earthly life. Only the promise of eternal life with God can do that.
There’s one more way to focus on selflessness and sacrifice during Lent: almsgiving.
Becoming better people isn’t just about looking inward and looking up to God. It’s also about doing God’s work in the world around us—so we should take up an important cause and go out of our way to support our neighbors during this season.
Prayer and fasting help us practice the first great commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Practicing charity in Lent helps us fulfill the second: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-40)
Almsgiving isn’t just about donating your treasure or even your time, either. Donating your time in prayer and spiritual kinship with a particular person or prayer intention is a sort of almsgiving, too.
My Lenten Practices for 2021
For each of the six weeks of Lent, I have chosen a specific fast (something to give up) or a specific practice or devotion to observe for each day of that week. I have a specific prayer intention for each week, too, so whenever I find myself thinking about or practicing that week’s observance, I will lift up that intention to God in prayer.
As I mentioned above, having a different practice to observe each week keeps me on my toes—“what can’t I eat this week again?” or “have I done my devotion today?” become common refrains in my train of thought—and thus gives me more opportunities to pray.
And then, during the Triduum, I try to observe the solemnity of that very special season—to make the holiness of it a central fixture in my mind, so I can thank God for all that He has done for me.
Finally, I know that having a couple of things to practice for the entirety of the season can be fruitful, also. It is always a good idea to establish healthy, lasting habits or help one’s neighbors more frequently.
Based on all this, here’s the schedule I’ve planned out for this year:
Week 1 (2/17-2/23)
- Give Up: coffee
- Intention: the Church Suffering
Week 2 (2/24-3/2)
- Take Up: daily act of charity
- Intention: the Church Militant
Week 3 (3/3-3/9)
- Give Up: condiments
- Intention: families struggling with infertility
Week 4 (3/10-3/16)
- Take Up: daily rosary
- Intention: the unborn
Week 5 (3/17-3/23)
- Give Up: chocolate
- Intention: my family
Week 6 (3/24-3/31)
- Take Up: daily act of charity
- Intention: the poor and persecuted
Paschal Triduum (4/1-4/3)
- Give Up: TV
- Focus: glorifying God
- Lift Up: At least 10 minutes of my attention every week to stand outside and thank God for the beauty of Creation
- Give Up: Unproductive complaining aloud (and petty or unkind internal complaining)
- Take Up: The needs of our local community by making weekly new, material donations to Saint Vincent de Paul or a pro-life ministry
For my daily acts of charity, I’ll be referencing a list of random acts of kindness and try to fulfill one every day.
It looks complicated all written down, but in practice, this is a fruitful and straightforward way to keep focused during Lent and be agile in the mindful practice of my faith.
And finally, please reach out if you have any special intentions that line up with the intentions I have listed above. I would be so honored to include your name, or the names of loved ones, in my prayers during the upcoming Lenten season.