Lent is one of my favorite times of year. Please know, I felt weird typing that. Lent, a time in the Catholic Church designed for self sacrifice and quiet repentance is not technically something to be enjoyed. It begins with literally putting ashes on your forehead, so it isn’t exactly a party. However, growing up in a very Catholic household it strangely, but rapidly, became something I looked forward to.
My mom is a Lenten champion. I think she realized pretty early on that it was her job to make Lent accessible to her daughters. As children, at least children living in a happy home, it was hard to understand things like sacrifice and penance. We knew what the words meant, because we were taught them over and over, but how much can you really repent for when you are seven years old? My mom made it her mission to make sure that even if we didn’t truly comprehend the purpose of Lent, we were actively thinking about it. Putting Lent at the forefront of what we did at the very least made certain that we were consistently participating in prayer and “beginners” reflection and as children, that was enough.
It all began with Ash Wednesday mass. We would go before school and all compare our ashen crosses in the car. Merry Grace always got the good ones. Mine always looked looked like some blob out of horror movie that came to life to swallow the town whole. It became a fun game to see how many of our classmates knew what the ashes were, how many would say something, and how many would just stare awkwardly. What was really neat was watching, as the years went on, how many classmates would remember from the year before and go “oh, it must be Ash Wednesday!”
Loving challenges, my mom made our Lenten sacrifice a topic of conversation beginning the second that New Years Resolutions were over. What were we giving up? Would we do something positive instead? Did we remember that we were supposed to suffer in silence because if you bragged about it it took away from your sacrifice? Oh, the conversations were endless. Some years we got pretty creative with it. There was one year that we went to 7 AM mass every Wednesday. We were bribed with going out to breakfast afterwards. Actually, that was about a three year streak. The best, though, was the year that we all gave up candy.
My family is full of recovering candy-holics that keep falling off the wagon. The one time we actually say no to candy successfully, though, is during the Lenten season. I have given up candy for Lent probably 15 out of the 21 Lents I have been permitted to give something up. There was one year, in particular though, where my mother actually truly challenged us. Spring break happened to fall during Lent and Mom needed an activity for her three young girls who had already read every book in the house. So, out of desperation she took us to the Jelly Belly Factory. Repeat: she took three girls who couldn’t eat candy to the Jelly Belly Factory. Why? Why, why, why would she do that? To this day she doesn’t know.
We made it through the tour that was wrought with delicious smells unscathed. We even managed to walk around the gift shop without faltering. But then, we got in the car. We were with some family friends who didn’t quite get the concept of Lenten sacrifices. As I sat in the backseat my friend proceeded to offer me jelly bean after jelly bean. I politely declined, then firmly declined and then, out of desperation, shared that I wasn’t eating candy during Lent. She then upped the ante on her encouragement and started telling me that if I just said a prayer after eating the candy Jesus would forgive me. It got intense. You want to teach your kid how to say no to peer pressure in high school? Put them in a situation where they have to say no to dessert when they are a child. Best training out there, I tell ya.
I held my ground, begrudgingly, and didn’t think about it again until 11:55 pm on Easter Saturday. Mom woke us all up from a sound sleep and told us to come downstairs. The Easter Bunny had already delivered our baskets, and in it were 10 pound bags of jelly beans she had secretly bought and hoarded. When the clock struck 12 announcing the arrival of Easter we devoured the candy and then, before the stomach ache could kick in, went back to bed. To this day it remains one of my most favorite memories of my mother.
Over the years the way I have practiced and observed Lent has changed. Some years I have been fastidious, adding in gratitude practices and extra mass celebrations. Some years I have simply given up candy and that is it. I have learned a few lessons over the years that always hold true.
It is your Lent.
One thing I dislike about Lent is that it brings up the “Lent Police.” These are the people that find out you have given up candy and will see you chewing gum and say “you can’t have that you said you were giving up candy.” What you sacrifice, and the way in which you choose to practice Lent is a completely personal choice. Giving up candy alone does not bring you closer to Jesus, nor does chewing gum “break” your sacrifice. Tell the Lent Police to hush.
Lent is not a diet.
In high school I went to a Catholic school, so everyone gave up something. I often had conversations after Ash Wednesday mass where girls would say things like “I’m giving up fried food. I hope I lose five pounds.” Lent is a sacred time of penance and prayer, not a trendy new 40 day diet. If you want to give up fried food, your heart will probably thank you, but you missed the whole point.
Lent is not meant to be trendy.
I love that so many people that aren’t Catholic know about this time and want to participate. I find it absolutely wonderful and I am thrilled to talk to you about our faith, our traditions, and Jesus. However, you can’t just give something up “for Lent.” Lent is a very special time for us Catholics. It mirrors the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert and with each pang of hunger during days when we fast, each yawn in early morning mass we attend, each fought desire for the thing we gave up we draw closer to Him. This is something incredibly sacred that we do. If you want to give up alcohol, or you decide you’re turning off your social media for 40 days, by all means go for it. I applaud your decision! But please, don’t call it Lent. It’s not. If you want to come to church with me on Easter Sunday, and you want to celebrate the other seasons with us, I would love it! But until you seek prayer through your sacrifice, it isn’t a Lenten one, just a personal one. Lent is not meant to be trendy. Further, giving up something you don’t actually like doesn’t “count.” My mom lovingly tells the story of her brother that would always give up pickles because he hated them. It’s a sacrifice. If it doesn’t hurt, if it’s too easy, then you’re doing it wrong.
Finally…Lent is the best time of the year.
Truly, Lent is my favorite season in the church. My first reminder is always the early morning mass before the sun rises. Yesterday I watched as so many people in suits, a handful of people in scrubs, and children in school uniforms walked up to get their ashes. Everyone had somewhere to be come eight o’clock but right then, all that mattered to them was celebrating the mass. The packed house was an incredibly affirming moment in the grand scheme of our community.
As you walk down the street the whole Wednesday you will be greeted by others with ashes. Catholics aren’t very showy with our faith. I am always so delighted when I walk into work and see colleagues with ashes. It is comforting to know that people you work with everyday are also Catholic. It is taboo to talk about religion in the professional world these days, but this silent sign opens the door. I am always pleasantly surprised when I walk into the dry cleaner or into a Starbucks and find so many strangers with ashes. You can never tell just by looking at someone if they are a believer, but on Ash Wednesday, you can!
As the excitement of that day wears off and we settle into the season of prayer and repentance the real reason I love Lent becomes so apparent: Lent is truly a time for gratitude. You see, as you sacrifice, you realize how little of a sacrifice you have made. When I am sitting at my desk and wishing I could have some candy I am reminded that that is my biggest struggle. I want some candy? That’s it? I am suffering because I wish I could have some gummy bears? This realization comes only through the sacrifice and when it does I realize how incredibly blessed I am. My biggest struggle is that I can’t eat my gummy bears? This cognizance of my blessings leads to prayers of intense gratitude. Lent is meant to be a time of reflection and this reflection always leads me to thanks giving. As I reflect I become even more aware of how abundantly wonderful of a life God has given me and I spend it in a way that I should everyday: thanking Him and trying to share the gifts that I been given. With the simple sacrifices we add we realize how little we are actually asked to sacrifice. Every person has a cross to bear, and Lent helps me to realize how light the cross he has given me is.