Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the day Lent officially begins and the day many of us vow to “give up” something. Lent is not just a Catholic thing, as many would believe, but is also observed in Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, and Eastern Orthodox faiths. Considering that its purpose is to draw us closer to God and to be more Christ-like, what’s not to recognize about it by all believers?
Why the Ashes?
To address the elephant in the room, Catholics around the world will gather in churches tomorrow to receive blessed ashes on their foreheads in the shape of a cross. The ashes come from burnt and blessed Palm Sunday palms and symbolize the “ashes to ashes” scripture from Genesis 3:19. They also remind the faithful of their sinfulness and the need to make changes in their lives. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends Holy Thursday, March 24. Sundays are not included as days of abstention or fasting.
Now that the specifics are out of the way, let’s move on to the more spiritual aspects.
Give Up and Give
In mass this past Sunday Deacon Dean gave a sermon that was the kind of sermon I wish we got every week. I left church feeling both fed and inspired. His message to us was to use Lent as a time to grow closer to God step-by-step, day-by-day, so when the day comes that we take our final step, it is an easy one. Loved the analogy.
But why do we “give up” something at Lent? Tradition has it that we abstain from things that take our attention away from God. We try to watch less TV; eat less; and waste less time on computers and phones texting, emailing, and endlessly scrolling through social media sites like Facebook and Instagram. Sunday’s sermon so eloquently suggested we fast from things like those that distance us from God and instead use the time for more proactive and good things. It got me thinking.
What do I habitually do that distances me from God? In today’s ever-growing secular and spiteful world, so many things. So very many things.
Giving up certain foods is what most of us automatically think of. When I was growing up, we’d always give up candy. This made the sweet treats in our Easter baskets all the more rewarding. As I’ve grown up, I still give up a certain sweets (Swedish Fish and any and all gummy candies, which I love, if you must know!) as well as other things that may not take me away from God, but are sacrifices nonetheless. We sacrifice things during Lent to remind us of what Jesus sacrificed for us: his LIFE! But, what can I remove that takes me away from God? I thought about this in mass and am still contemplating it.
One idea I have is to read any type of spiritual book when I go to bed rather than turn to my IPad or TV. When I think of it that way, choosing the IPad or TV over praying or reading definitely leads me away from God. Bingo. I’m gonna give it my best shot! Maybe I’ll even start to like it.
Lent is all about just that: conversion. The goal isn’t just to abstain from something during the 40 days of Lent, but forever. It’s kind of like going on a diet or a fitness program. Your goal shouldn’t be to eat healthy only while dieting or to exercise only while trying to lose weight, but to take on those habits daily and regularly. Giving up sinful things and negative habits during Lent can be as difficult as giving up sodas, chocolate, or fast food, but eliminating them from your life all together is even tougher.
So, avoid those unhealthy sodas and mindless computer games, but how about also giving up things that take the joy out of our lives like resentment, complaining, pessimism, worry, anger, pettiness, and even gossip. As Deacon Dean said on Sunday, rather than seeing homeless people at your car window at a stoplight as an annoyance, think of them as an opportunity to serve Jesus. He suggested giving them socks and underwear as they have nowhere to do laundry so once their undies get old or soiled, they have no choice but to throw them out. How hard is it to keep sock and underwear in your car? Not very.
We tend to look at those homeless souls as icky and dirty, but none of us are genuinely clean and pure. Consider Lent as an early exercise in “spring cleaning” and look at what you need to “clean” out in your “temple.” We all have cobwebs lurking behind all of our good intentions, but as they say, your beliefs don’t make you a good person, your behavior does.
Lastly, Deacon Dean reminded us that we are encouraged to offer up Prayer, Almsgiving, and Fasting during Lent. Prayer consists of our relationship with God, Almsgiving is our relationship with others, and Fasting is our relationship with ourself. Isn’t that how we should always prioritize things: God, others, and self? Tomorrow is a good day to start.