On Lent, Past & Present

273px-Masaccio,_trinità

From “Trinity,” by Masaccio, 1426-28. A fresco located in Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy.

Today is Ash Wednesday – the beginning of Lent.

For the majority of my life, Ash Wednesday has marked the start of a forty day guilt trip. When I was a kid, my parents would encourage me to give something up, like candy or cookies. This meant that I would still eat candy and cookies, but I would feel guilty while doing so.

There were several years where I strongly considered giving up shrimp cocktail. It was my favorite food, but I could live without it for a while. However, my birthday always falls in the middle of Lent, and I wanted to be able to request shrimp for dinner. I don’t think I ever did – I just wanted to have the option.

In fourth grade, I gave up Harry Potter for Lent. There was talk of “witchcraft,” and I wanted nothing of it. Also, I was in the middle of Goblet of Fire – the part that’s kind of slow –  but my teacher was really strict about us finishing the books we had started. So I outsmarted her by pulling the “observant Catholic” card.

In fifth grade, I once again gave up Harry Potter. The series was now a global phenomenon, but, having never resumed book #4, I wasn’t really interested. When my friends asked if I had read Order of the Phoenix yet, I outsmarted them by pulling the “observant Catholic” card.

Once, I gave up money for Lent. I understood enough about Lent to know that you are supposed to give up something that keeps you from God. And I understood enough about myself to know that I tend to put my faith in money. So I had my parents take forty days worth of allowance (all $15!) and donate it to World Vision, to help a family in Africa buy a rabbit. That was probably my peak as a faithful Christian – maybe someday I’ll be brave enough to do that again.

For a while in high school, we were pseudo-Evangelical and Lent wasn’t a big deal. That was the most guilt-free I’ve ever been.

In college I made up for this by going all-out: a friend and I endeavored to follow the Rabbinic laws as given to the Israelites in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. I failed miserably, and every non-Kosher meal or iota drawn on a Saturday came with guilt, and sometimes nausea (the first year I did this, I wasn’t able to properly digest pork until July). Those were some of the most intense yet gratifying Lents I’ve ever experienced, but I think they might have missed the point.

To be sure, I still don’t fully understand the “point” of Lent, but I have a better idea now than when I was an adolescent Harry Potter fangirl who loved shrimp. I understand now that the point of Lent isn’t guilt, though it’s probably good to feel extra-convicted for a season.

The point of Lent is to rely on God is ways that we aren’t used to. For example, I don’t typically turn to God when deciding what to eat, because it’s strange and would annoy waiters and baristas  all over Philly. But when fasting from a particular food group, His strength is helpful in resisting temptation.

The point of Lent is to remember our limitations. I don’t plan on it, but I know that I will break Lent this year – probably by the end of this week. When I reach for Half-Blood Prince that happens, I hope to use this failure as an opportunity to be honest with myself about who I am – a fallen human in need of grace.

The point of Lent is to understand suffering. When we fast, we suffer a little. But this pious, optional suffering is luxurious compared to what billions of people go through every day, and, of course, what Jesus went through for us during his final days.

And, even though it is deeply important, the point of Lent is not “giving stuff up.” It’s not so much about what’s in our bellies as what’s in our hearts and minds. The point of Lent is remembering, and mourning.

I’m excited to remember and mourn with you all during this season.

PS – This year, I’ll be using Liberti Church’s Lent and Easter prayerbook, to help me remember, mourn, and, ultimately, celebrate. Click here to download a free copy!

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