As Ash Wednesday draws to a close I’m drawn to think about the season of Lent and what it means to me as a Christian. Growing up, Lent was about one thing: SACRIFICE. You promised to give up something you liked for forty days until Easter when, in celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, you were relieved of your obligatory suffering and resumed eating candy, watching TV, hitting your brother, or whatever it was you chose to do without. Knowing that Easter celebrated the redemption of mankind, it was easy for me as a child to draw the conclusion that Lent was a time to punish ourselves for all the sins we committed during the past year. Wrong!
Lent is not a time of punishment in hopes of redemption. It is a time of spiritual transformation. It is a time when we strive to come closer to God and more fully appreciate the gift of redemption that we have already received. Our Lenten sacrifice should not be used as an instrument of self-torture, but rather for the clearing away of a distraction that has drawn us away from God. Many secularists (and even a lot of Catholics) have appropriated Lent as a season of personal “spring cleaning”. They happily jump on the Catholic “bandwagon of self-improvement!” with no other intention than to eat healthier, save money, or stop being so pessimistic. Granted, these are worthy goals and I’m not about to discourage anyone from pursuing them at any time of year, but I believe it indicates how the true purpose of Lent has been misunderstood and misrepresented in popular culture.
In deciding “what to give up for Lent”, we should take a look at what distracts us from God. Do we watch TV more than we pray? Do we eat when we’re unhappy instead of giving our cares to God? Do we drive to work thinking about what we want from Starbucks instead of what we’re grateful to God for giving us? Lent is not a time for SACRIFICE. It’s a time to do away with whatever it is we’ve been using as a poor substitute for God and filling the hole with the Holy Spirit. Think spiritual enrichment, not self flagellation.
What am I “giving up” for Lent, you may ask? Well, for the past year or so, Lisa Helene and I have made a morning ritual out of spending the first hour to an hour and a half of every morning lounging in bed with a cup of coffee and the morning news. Starting today it’s going to be less coffee and more God! We’ve committed ourselves to going to 8:00 AM daily Mass throughout Lent. This will be a particular challenge on Saturday mornings after working till midnight on Friday, but on those occasions when I absolutely cannot get up, we will pray a rosary. The point is not to sacrifice sleep but to exert more energy toward God and less toward leisure.
Don’t get me wrong. Lent is a time for somber reflection on the suffering of our Lord. It is a time to reflect on our failings and atone for our sins. I just don’t believe it is a time to suffer for sake of suffering. Rejoice in the journey toward God!