Understanding Lenten sacrifices

Photo: Gino Santa Maria/Shutterstock

Each year our family begins Lent in the kitchen.

My wife rolls out three long and thick strands of salt dough that she then braids together. Next she attaches one extremity of the dough creation to the other to form a circle. Then the fun begins. With boxes of toothpicks at hand, our children compete to see who can stick the most toothpicks in the circle of dough. Lastly, the whole thing, toothpicks and all, goes into the oven. After a thorough baking, our family’s “crown of thorns” emerges from the oven and thereafter occupies the middle of our dining room table for the duration of Lent. 

The reason for all this work is simple: the crown of thorns encourages our children to make sacrifices during Lent. Each time a sacrifice is made, the child responsible for the good deed removes a thorn from the crown. The goal, of course, is to have all the thorns removed before the end of Lent. 

“Christ Crowned with Thorns” by Matthias Stom, between circa 1633 and circa 1639. Photo: Public Domain

What my kids call “sacrifices,” we adults call “penances,” and theologians call “satisfactory works” (opera satisfactoria). This name comes from the Latin verb satisfacere, which in turn derives from the verb “facere,” meaning “to make” or “to do,” and the adverb satis, which means “enough.” This glance at the origin of the word satisfactory helps us to see that works so named are acts of the virtue of justice. They aim at restoring the order that has been damaged or destroyed by sin.

One thing is obvious about Lenten satisfactory works: They seem to vary from one person to the next. Some people decide to give up coffee, alcohol, or sweets during Lent. Others work on praying more. Still others may volunteer at the local soup kitchen, and so on.

Yet all the satisfactory works just mentioned, and any others which we can come up with, are categorized under one of the three kinds of human acts traditionally known as almsgiving, fasting, and prayer. Giving up coffee, alcohol, and sweets are forms of fasting. Ramping up one’s prayer life falls under the heading of prayer. And volunteering at a soup kitchen or giving up one’s time to serve others counts as almsgiving. 

Photo: New Africa/Shutterstock

Almsgiving, fasting, and prayer exhaust all the satisfactory works we can do because this trio is based on an exhaustive division of all the goods we human beings can have. In other words, all the goods which belong to us can be divided into those which are external to us (money, jewelry, and so on) and those that are somehow internal to us. These latter goods are further divisible into goods of the body (bodily health, various sense pleasures, and so on) and goods of the soul (our intellects and wills themselves, knowledge, virtue, and so on).

And since external goods, goods of the body, and goods of the soul comprise all goods that are properly human, it is also true that there are only three general kinds of works that we can do to make up for our sins.

To see that this is so, we should bear in mind that when we sin, we turn our hearts inordinately toward creatures and deprive God of his due glory. So, to make up for this, we may give alms and in so doing, deprive ourselves of some external goods for God’s glory. Or we may fast and thereby deprive ourselves of some goods of the body to give honor to God. Or lastly, we may pray, which means that we may raise our heart and mind to God and thereby surrender these goods of the soul to God himself. By “giving up” these highest faculties of ours to God when we pray, we also render glory to God.

We may fast and thereby deprive ourselves.

Yet performing satisfactory works isn’t solely about making up for our past sins. For we also do these works to prevent ourselves from falling into future sins. In connection with this, St. John says the three causes of sin are sensual lust, enticement for the eyes, and a pretentious life (see 1 John 2:16). The first of these causes is uprooted, or at least weakened, by fasting; the second by almsgiving; and the third by prayer.  In a similar way, since every sin is directed against God, oneself, or one’s neighbor, we can work to prevent ourselves from sinning in the future by praying, fasting, and giving alms, respectively.

In the apostle Peter, we find a wonderful example of someone performing satisfactory works both to make up for his past sins and to prevent future sins. Recall that after being denied by him for the third time, Jesus turned and looked at Peter. Seeing the face of his savior, Peter immediately received the grace of contrition and wept bitterly for his sins (see Luke 22:61-62). 

Stained glass depicting the Denial of St. Peter. Photo: jorisvo/Shutterstock

Not until after the Resurrection, though, did Peter receive the grace which moved him to declare his love for Christ three times (see John 21:15-17). These acts of charity were not only reparative of Peter’s threefold betrayal of Christ, but also medicinal or preventative in the sense that they strengthened him for what was to come. More specifically, these acts prepared Peter both to feed the flock of Christ and to embrace the very same kind of death which was suffered by his Divine Master (see John 21:18-19). 

In imitation of St. Peter, then, let’s work this Lent to give alms, to fast, and to pray not only to make up for our past sins, but also to grow strong in God’s grace and the virtues that we might fight better “the good fight” (2 Timothy 4:7, RSV). Let’s all strive to make this Lent end better than any previous one. Amen!  

Ilustration: T. Schluenderfritz

Recipe for a crown of thorns

  • Use a 2-1 ratio of flour to salt and add water or cold coffee (for color, if desired) until dough is moist and pliable.
  • Divide dough into three equal parts. Roll each part into equal lengths. Braid these strands of dough and connect the ends to form a circle.
  • Meanwhile, soak a good number of toothpicks in vegetable oil until saturated. 
  • Insert the toothpicks all around the crown.
  • Bake the crown with the inserted toothpicks at 350 degrees until firm (roughly 15-20 minutes).  Make sure to remove the crown from the oven before it gets extremely hard (otherwise the toothpicks will be very difficult to remove). 
  • Use the crown of thorns as a table center piece with an empty jar nearby. For every sacrifice or good deed one thorn should be removed from the crown and placed in the jar. All of the thorns should be removed prior to Easter. And before the children wake up on Easter morning, all of the thorns in the jar should be replaced by jelly beans or some other favorite candies. 

— Jennaya Arias

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