Lent – Then and Now
I remember in school everyone worked on deciding what to give up for Lent this year. It was usually chocolate. Some would joke about giving up smoking (we were too little to smoke). It became a ritual every year, puzzling what to give up. It was usually chocolate.
One year I gave up coffee. That was a disaster. I’ll never put a cup of chicory to my lips again. At the time, it became obvious that I was dependent on caffeine; I have since nurtured that into becoming a coffee snob, savouring each sip of the grape soda, citrus and caramel notes in my selected brew of the week.
My mother-in-law was an expert on Lent. Every year she would give up butter, and then splurge on butter every Sunday. I didn’t know there was no Lent on Sundays. I counted the 40 days, and if you did count in the Sundays, you end up short on Palm Sunday. She was right!
When our kids were little, perfect little cubes came home for loose change for missions elsewhere. We all worked diligently to make sure each of the three cubes got filled to the brim before it went back to school.
Lent began with going to Mass at school to get ashes on Ash Wednesday, having to leave school with those ashes on your forehead, hoping you had enough left on to show Mom that you got your ashes, but hoping they were under your hair so that no one would pick up on it while you walked home.
At my age, I don’t much care how much ash is there. A friend of mine explained to me that turning 40 was wonderful, 40 was liberating. After you reach 40, you don’t give a hoot what anyone says. That was 22 years ago.
The Gospel from Matthew (Mt 6: 1-6, 16-18) on Ash Wednesday articulates the three pillars of Lent – prayer, almsgiving and fasting. I would have two covered, the prayer not hitting until Holy Week, when it felt like enough church to last for the rest of the year.
What does this all mean? There must be a deeper meaning for Lent, more than to be found in the musings of an old man. What did Lent become, for it did become something over many years.
In children’s liturgy in the non-pandemic time, I would start Lent with asking the children to write down favourites – their favourite TV show, favourite after school activity, favourite candy. After I collected all the slips of paper in a clear plastic box, I would then pour them out on the tabletop.
When asked what I had left, we all acknowledged I had an empty box with lots of room. I explained that when we give up things, we have more room within ourselves; we have more time and energy for new things, for change, for becoming better in our service to others.
Lent is a deliberate opportunity for change. Giving up something, even for a little while of 40 days, gives us a chance for renewal. The self-sacrifice of giving up something allows us more resource to be generous to others. The little cubes of loose change would be filled by coins with other intentions outside the season of Lent. Less time with video games means more time with others.
The ashes compel reflection. The reminder that eventually we return to where we started causes us to reflect on what we seek for the short time we are here, and if we’re getting there. Reflection stirs action to either stay the course or change.
Finally, there is prayer – the richest gift of Lent. It is the time of year that we deliberately make time to pray. Perhaps this is initially out of guilt, for if there is ever a time to reflect on our weakness and sin, it is Lent.
The ashes remind us of its symbolism for humility and repentance in the Old Testament. We realize how little we are in comparison to God, but then marvel at how much we are loved while so little in comparison to God. We reflect on what we need to change in order to again follow God more closely, in keeping with repentance meaning metanoia.
Perhaps it is out of a sense of holy obligation we feel we need to pray more during Lent; but hopefully that obligation transforms into deep satisfaction. My wife Anne and I will take advantage of numerous Lenten retreats online, and our prayer group ramps up to once-a-week meetings to discuss the daily readings during Lent.
Lent becomes the key opportunity to become more deeply aware of the love of God and the needs to share, to save the planet, to understand suffering, to reach out to the outcast.
With Holy Week, it is the time to celebrate the first transubstantiation of bread and wine – Christ with us physically for all time; the demonstration of leadership as service through the washing of the feet; and then the greatest act of love, carried out through sacrifice and suffering.
Not all Christian religions observe Lent. My very good Baptist friend had never heard of it. I hope you savour the richness of the season, its bitter and sweet flavours in its meanings and insights. I hope you find a little twist of metanoia that is within your reach. Lent is a wonderful preparation for the arrival at Easter. Blessed are we who have it.