Lent: what is it good for?

Previously published in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch

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It begins with that day of the year when Catholics walk around with soot on their foreheads. The ashes are burned, blessed and distributed with the reminder, “you are dust and unto dust, you shall return.” I can think of more romantic ways to celebrate Valentine’s Day this year.

And yet…

What does “carpe diem” and living the moment intentionally mean apart from the understanding that we must live today, cherish every moment because our tomorrows are not guaranteed? It is the grip of that reflective reaction which occurs when someone dies. When we think of what he or she accomplished or perhaps how little time there was; we review our own regrets and gratitude.

Lent is meant for that. Although instead of doing it after a death, it does it leading up to a death, the day Christians recall the Crucifixion, a Friday called Good.

I reflect for myself: am I living a life consistent with my convictions? What can I improve?

Along with reflection, it encourages fasting. Catholics and other traditions “give up” something for Lent. Removing the excesses brings into focus what really matters to me and the things that may have become unintentionally central in my life. Chocolate? Perhaps. Snacking? Perhaps. Gossip? Perhaps. Whatever it is, when I make a focused effort to abstain from it, I do not only become free to evaluate what role it played in my life, but like the Whole 30 diet, this intensive approach seeks to break the bad habits in order to make room for the new, the things I want to be central in my life.

Prayer becomes the sustenance to help me endure and inspire me to continue. It facilitates the initial inquiry of what I want to achieve and keeps the goal in mind. Like using a charitable project to inspire marathon training. What do I want my life to look like? Not just what I want but what am I called to? How can I adjust my expectations and beliefs to fit the bigger picture, love of God and love of neighbor? Am I fully embracing the path I walk on? The formation of that vision inspires the sacrifices.

Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the ingredients to the season of Lent. Because much of human error can be located in the area of what we do for others and financial practices, Christians are invited to give more at this time. Like “Giving Tuesday” after the trio of shopping days: Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. When there is a concerted effort in a short span of time, the effort tends to be more effective.

Equivalents exist in small examples throughout our culture. I welcome the quiet of Lent as I welcome the storage containers that come to Target’s shop floor the first of January. It is good to have seasons of focus. It is a bit too much to live life and keep everything in mind. We need seasons.

My plan is to continue with the disciplines (new habits) I have been working on this spring, to give up bread (to encourage healthier options), to do some spiritual reading, to become more consistent in charitable giving, to take more time for silence and remember to keep work days as their own thing rather than let them spill all over my home days. It is not a radical shift, though it could be if that were necessary. Lent provides the opportunity.

I am not sure our culture has an equivalent to this practice as a whole. Advertisers would have us focus on the here-and-now. At Thanksgiving, we practice gratitude. During Christmastime, we oscillate between the desire to acquire and the desire to “count our blessings.” I think we need it. Our tomorrows are not guaranteed, so when the priest will say, “you are dust and unto dust, you shall return,” I will think in my heart, “I know” and I will try to live like it.

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