When Ash Wednesday comes along every year people start asking each other what they are going to give up for Lent. Will it be chocolate? Television? Talking with your spouse? Going to work? Or will you add something new? Praying more? Going to adoration regularly? Perhaps giving more money to the poor? These good intentions are very common and they revolve around the Church’s triple penitential observances of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. But, what is the deeper spiritual and theological purpose for our Lenten practice of self-denial?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) paragraph 1434 comments, “The interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others.”
The point, therefore, of this threefold penitential practice is a threefold conversion. But it goes deeper than that. The first thing to understand is that we were originally created in the image and likeness of God, in order to be children of God, and share in his divine life. That sublime vocation was destroyed by the disobedience of Adam and Eve. But God did not leave us orphans! Praise be to God that Jesus redeems us through the graces of his Paschal Mysteries to save us from Satan, sin, and death. He restores the divine adoption to us that God originally wanted (see Romans 8:15; 1 John 3:1; and 2 Peter 1:4).
While it is certainly good news that our sins are forgiven through the sacraments, we unfortunately still experience the consequences of sin and the disruption of our inner harmony in a variety of ways. Saint Paul famously references this in Romans 7:15–20 when he says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.”
What inner turmoil! St. Paul is describing something that we’ve all experienced, whether we admit it or not. We lack the self-mastery which Adam originally possessed in the Garden of Eden. As the Catechism explains it:
“The ‘mastery’ over the world that God offered man from the beginning was realized above all within man himself: mastery of self. The first man was unimpaired and ordered in his whole being because he was free from the triple concupiscence that subjugates him to the pleasures of the senses, covetousness for earthly goods, and self-assertion, contrary to the dictates of reason.” (CCC 377)
This triple concupiscence is one of the consequences of Adam’s sin with which everyone wrestles daily. “Concupiscence” is easily understood as the “inclination to sin.” Saint John the Apostle gives us a better understanding of this concept in his first epistle. He says:
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.” (1 John 2:15–17)
What is St. John talking about? The word “lust” really can be understood as “desire” or “craving” in a general sense. Therefore, the lust of the flesh is an inordinate or unnatural desire for bodily pleasure of any kind such as food, drink, sensual pleasures, excessive comforts, etc., which is what the Catechism called “the pleasures of the senses.”
The lust of the eyes is an inordinate or unnatural desire for possessions. This can manifest itself in greed, envy, consumerism, materialism, etc., which is what the Catechism called the “covetousness for earthly goods.”
Finally, the pride of life is a rebellion and disobedience against God seen in sins such as egotism, pride, selfishness, arrogance, atheism, etc., which is what the Catechism calls “self-assertion, contrary to the dictates of reason.” All sin can be categorized into one of these three divisions.
We have all experienced this triple concupiscence in different ways and at different times. But how do we conquer the triple concupiscence within us, regain self-mastery, and embrace our vocation to be God’s loving and obedient children? Jesus gives the answer in his famous Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6 Jesus instructs his disciples on the proper way to give alms (v.2–4), pray (v. 5–15), and fast (v. 16–18).
Notice that this is not an option for his followers, but a command. We are all called to observe this triple penitential practice! Why? Because the triple penance is the antidote to the triple concupiscence. Almsgiving teaches us detachment from worldly goods and helps us defeat the lust of the eyes. Praying teaches us that God is truly in control, not us, and we must depend on our heavenly Father, which conquers the pride of life. Finally, fasting reduces the powerful temptations of bodily pleasures and thereby subdues the lust of the flesh.
While every Christian is called to do this, it is interesting to note that men and women religious take a special, threefold vow to ensure that all obstacles to God’s love are eliminated. Their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience are the antidotes for the triple concupiscence in a beautifully intense way.
It is true that the majority of us do not take such vows, but we are all called to imitate the underlying attitude behind them, namely to increase our desire to conquer sin and experience deeper conversion in our lives. While the Church’s observance of this triple penance of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving is certainly the antidote to the triple concupiscence with which we all struggle, it simultaneously “expresses conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others,” as our opening quote from CCC 1434 stated. Sin destroys our harmony within ourselves, with God, and with others. However, fasting restores harmony within ourselves. Praying restores harmony with God. And almsgiving restores harmony with others.
In conclusion, we can now answer our original question about the deeper theological and spiritual reasons behind the Church’s triple form of penance. We do this every year because we seek to conquer the triple concupiscence within us, grow in conversion, and embrace our vocation to be children of God. So, observe all three forms of penance this Lent, not just one. Give up something dear to you, pray every day from the quiet of your heart, and give alms to those in need. By doing these three things you’ll grow in holiness and you’ll find peace.