Today is Ash Wednesday, so once again we’re entering into a beautiful liturgical time in our Church year – the Lenten season. In order to prepare us for Easter and the joy of the resurrection, the Catholic Church as well as many other Christian faiths give us 40 days to practice penance, prayer, and almsgiving.
Even though I’ve always been able to see the why behind Lent – that in fasting and giving up things we have the opportunity to crucify some of our worldly desires with Christ, grow in faith, and better appreciate the Passion through our own small scourges, I can remember a period of my life when I wasn’t all that “in” to Lent, when I didn’t live the Lenten season.
When I was in college, I attended Sunday Mass and made it to weekday Mass several times a week. When Lent rolled around, I’d avoid meat on Fridays (but this didn’t put me in line for sainthood, especially since I was a vegetarian in those days). I’d make a few token spiritual goals and go to confession, but I honestly didn’t take the season all that seriously. I followed the “rules,” but the meaning of Lent had not found its way into my heart.
However, during my senior year I suffered the unfortunate malady of a broken heart. I was weepy and contrite for the way my relationship had ended, so I made a promise to myself to “fast” on any thoughts about the One Who Had Demolished My Heart. I also made the decision to make others happy even if I was crying inside. I’d smile at strangers. I volunteered more. I went out of my way to look beyond myself and to give to others. I gave up all sweets and an hour of sleep to spend more time in prayer. I also did all of this for the right reasons – because I was lonely from the breakup, I desired more than anything to draw closer to Christ.
Well, something worked.
When Easter arrived that year, I experienced a very personal joy in Christ’s resurrection. That was the first Lent when I truly allowed myself to be transformed by God’s graces and to arrive at Easter brimming with his love and a better understanding of what it means to give until it hurts.
Since then I’ve had other meaningful Lents as well as some other 40-day periods that weren’t so rewarding. How much Lent will change me, how much I’m able to distance myself from this material world and enter into a more intimate relationship with Christ hinges upon my own attitude and how I choose to live Lent. Looking back on my Lenten experiences, I have to ask myself: Did I truly use it as a time to grow in holiness by depriving myself, making difficult sacrifices or giving beyond what was ordinary? Or did I let the 40 days pass by either without giving or doing all that much at all, or did I give but maybe not for the right reasons (giving up sweets in time for the looming swimsuit season falls into the latter category)?
An acquaintance of mine whom I’ve lost touch with once told me he missed the bitter cold winters he’d endured when he lived above the Mason Dixie Line. As a Southern transplant myself, I couldn’t understand this and figured he was just one of those rare weirdos who liked the sensation of numb toes and the way blue lips look. But he went on to explain that the spring was always that much more beautiful after a hard winter. It’s a well-worn cliché, but it does seem easier to appreciate a sunny, spring day after a week (or months) of gloominess.
The same is true of Lent. It is a time to wake up to Christ and to new life. But if we spend the 40 days half-asleep, we may not be able to fully appreciate the profundity of the wake up call we receive on Easter. If we don’t spend Lent working on removing some of the barriers we’ve erected that keep us from Christ, it’s going to be tougher to really dislodge the stone from the tomb on Easter.
Thankfully, the Church has given us some tools to help us do just this. By practicing prayer, penance, and almsgiving and obeying the laws of fasting and abstinence, our lives can become more Christ-centered. But our hearts have to be in it. We can’t just be following the rules or going through the motions.
Many Christians – Catholic or otherwise – choose to make sacrifices during Lent in order to practice self-denial and to give up something, whether it’s television or coffee. Or, as in my case in college, it might be helpful to “fast” on something that’s not tangible in your life but is still serving as a stumbling block to your growing closer to Christ such as “starving” yourself from negative thoughts or needless worry and instead placing your trust in the Holy One.
Whatever Lenten resolutions you choose to make this year, let’s pray for one another that these 40 days will be a time to sharpen our awareness that God is present in our lives now and always.
I’ve found the following questions helpful to examine when I’m trying to come up with my own Lenten resolutions:
1. How do I take care of my body? Do I glorify God with it? Do I feed it properly? Do I exercise? Do I treat it with respect?
2. How do I care for my community? Whom is my community? My family? Is it my church? My place of employment? The blogosphere? What role do I play in my community? How can I make the best of this role? What do others expect of me? What do I expect of myself? What do I expect of others? Are others’ and my own expectations for myself and those around me in line with my desire to live a more Christ-centric life?
3. How do I cultivate my spiritual life? How often do I pray? How do I pray? Do I consider God a friend or distant and obscure – more like an idea than a real presence in my life? Do I have a truly intimate relationship with the Holy One? How can I improve my relationship with him? Does prayer enrich me? Is something in my spiritual life not working? Does my faith trickle over to the way I live, or do I tend to compartmentalize it? When have I felt really close to God? What was going on during those times in my life? What was I doing to foster this closeness? What can I do now to connect with God?
I’d love to hear from you on how you plan to live Lent this year.