When I was seven-years-old, I swore off green beans for 40 days. At eight, I learned that the true reason that I was supposed to give up something for Lent was to show that I loved Jesus more than what I was giving up. I loved Jesus so much more than doing my chores. My mom didn’t agree that chores presented a reasonable Lenten sacrifice, and she had powerful allies. Our Parish Priest and assorted nuns at school confirmed that allowing over six weeks of filth to accumulate in my bedroom was not in keeping with the spirit of Lent. Even today, I would much rather give up homework than chocolate or Xanga but I know better. I know today that Lent is not the opportunity for a New Year’s resolution do-over.
When millions of us take part in the Sacrament of Reconciliation on Mardi Gras (French for “Fat Tuesday”), and receive our traditional ashes on our foreheads the next day, we will be starting a period that is not just about giving something up, but about bringing ourselves closer to Jesus Christ. While the most well-known practice of Lent is doing without luxuries, as well as fasting and avoiding meat, it is this practice that is least related to what Lent truly means. We often speak very publicly of what we are setting aside, be it alcohol, caffeine, television, sugar or sex (many try). In fact we speak so publicly and loudly of it, that we seem to need the reminders of our Ash Wednesday Gospel readings from Matthew 6 so much more as our pride, hypocrisy and gloominess often appear to know no bounds. It is these three things that Jesus speaks of–almsgiving, prayer, and fasting–that make up the Christian unification with Christ in the desert. For Catholics, Wednesday begins one of the two seasons of preparation for the cores of the Christian calendar; Lent being our preparation for Easter and Advent for Christmas. We should ask ourselves, though, is giving up candy or American Idol actually bringing us closer to our Lord, or is it just a way to go through the motions and make ourselves feel better? There is nothing wrong with giving something up, in fact we should, except that we should focus on testing ourselves while simultaneously doing those things that make us more like Christ. Do without something that truly requires discipline to avoid, while adding something that equally requires commitment. For example, make peace with your sworn enemy, or right a long-past wrong. All the while pray without ceasing and perhaps literally leave yourself with just one coat.
Lent is our preparation for death. The death of Good Friday. It is a call to kill all the personal needs that scream for our attention so that we hear only Jesus Christ. It is when we kill our selfishness, our desire, our greed, our worldly tastes that we become ready to have life, resurrected, on Easter Sunday.