Happy Easter! I’m a few weeks late, you say? Actually in Catholicism, the season of Easter is still going strong. Instead of a single day, Easter lasts the fifty days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost. (Which explains why the day after Easter Sunday I spent my lunch break stuffing 200 Easter eggs for a church hunt the following weekend.)
As Catholics, before we can celebrate Easter with egg hunts, ham, and of course Mass, we must first prepare ourselves…which brings us to the liturgical season preceding Easter, more commonly known as Lent.
Growing up Baptist, Lent, a season of sacrifice and penance, was not on my radar. Why did we need to make sacrifices when Jesus had already made the ultimate sacrifice for us? If I had not converted, I’d probably still be firing that comeback whenever anyone mentioned meatless Fridays or saying a Rosary.
Converting religions means opening yourself up to new ways of thought, though, and gradually I began to ask myself “Why not?.” Why not push myself spiritually? Why not try to improve my relationship with God? That’s what Lent is all about. It’s a wake-up call of sorts to pull us out of complacency and get us working on being better Christians.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting marked by priests administering ash crosses, which symbolize both the dust from which we are made and grief that we have sinned, to anyone who wishes to receive them, even non-Catholics. Contrary to popular belief, Catholics are not actually required to receive ashes, which this year put me in a dilemma.
Our usual evening Ash Wednesday service was not going to work with a five month old, so if we wanted to receive ashes, my husband and I would have to receive them during our lunch breaks, which meant finishing the work day with crosses on our foreheads and strange looks from people we encountered.
It was not required that we receive ashes, and it would have been easy to forgo them. However, for me at least, the reason for forgoing them felt disturbingly close to shame for wearing such a visible symbol of Christianity. Ashamed of my shame, off to church I went, and thus began Lent very appropriately-by acknowledging my sin (embarrassment at wearing ashes) and doing something about it (publicly wearing ashes, even though I was in the very last section of the church to receive them and it was extremely tempting to leave the service without them). Score one for Lent.
Each Lent I’ve found myself naturally drawn to adding something to my routine instead of giving something up. My first Lent I read the Gospel (very eye-opening if you’ve ever wondered where many common Catholic prayers and sayings come from), my second Lent I read the catechism, and my most recent Lent I attempted to learn the Rosary. For me, Lent is a perfect time to do things I’ve been needing/wanting to do but just don’t seem to be able to fit in otherwise.
Fitting something extra in seemed almost impossible this year between caring for an infant and working full-time. Even my lunch breaks are now mostly taken up by running errands to minimize time away from William or bringing tasks from home so that I can focus on him in the evenings. Fortunately, when I mentioned that I really wanted to try learning the Rosary this Lent, someone suggested listening to it on podcast while driving to work. I took it a step further and decided to only listen to the Rosary during Lent, which meant I also gave up listening to music while driving (and I really love listening to music while driving).
It wasn’t the perfect solution because I really need to see words written down to learn things, but it worked well enough. Even after six weeks of hearing at least one decade a day I cannot recite the Rosary from memory, but I’m much more familiar with it now, and I’m less intimidated by it. I was surprised to find that I could almost listen to an entire decade just on the way to work.
Ideally, you will continue with whatever practice you began during Lent. Last year my husband began reading the daily scriptures, and he succeeded in making it part of his daily routine. I wish I could say the same, but I’m back to reliving my past with Prime Country and Pop2K. I am trying to make an effort to listen to a decade while getting dressed in the morning, but I keep forgetting in the rush to get out the door. (See why Lent is so great? It forces you to prioritize things that you should be prioritizing anyway but aren’t because you’re human, and humans aren’t always the greatest.)
Of course, it’s probably more common to give something up for Lent. At first I didn’t understand the point of giving something up at all. Why would God care if I didn’t drink a Diet Coke? Then someone pointed out that every time we want what we have given up, we should think about God instead. What we have given up becomes a symbol of things that we place before God.
Sadly, I’m afraid that most people actually do miss the point of giving things up for Lent. It’s almost become a kind of New Year’s do-over with people vowing to give things up just because they want to kick a bad habit or get healthier. While those reasons are admirable, they don’t make for a fruitful Lent. Giving things up for Lent should be about spiritual well-being, not physical.
(Funny side note-This year my husband had an especially hard time deciding what to do for Lent. As he put it, “I’ve already given up doing everything I enjoy since William was born.” Ahh, the joys of parenthood. It’s a good thing William is so cute.)
Something we do give up every Friday, however, is meat. Most people, even Catholics, are surprised to learn that Catholics are encouraged to abstain from meat every Friday, not just during Lent. If they don’t abstain, they are required to do another act of penance, such as saying the Rosary. By doing so, each Friday is like a mini-Lent, when we remember Jesus’s suffering on the cross, and each Sunday is like a mini-Easter, when we celebrate His resurrection.
My father, ever skeptical of anything to do with Catholicism, once scoffed, “Some sacrifice” when I explained why I was ordering fish tacos instead of beef. Because I never have the right words at the right time, I just smiled and shook my head. What I wish I had done was agreed. Giving up meat on Fridays is a very small sacrifice. It’s nothing compared to what Jesus gave up for us.
But it is something. It is a way of remembering Jesus, and that’s the important thing. I wish I had asked my dad, “But what are you doing? What are you doing to remember Jesus today?.” Not all branches of Christianity emphasize Lent or agree with sacrifices, but what we can all agree on is emphasizing Jesus in our daily lives.
What I love about Catholicism, and Lent in particular, is the way it forces me to evaluate how I’m doing spiritually and think of ways I can improve. The customs that I once thought were needless and trivial have become an important part of preparing myself for Easter, and for that I am grateful.
If, like I once did, you approach Lent with skepticism, maybe it’s time to ask the two questions that helped me-“Why not?” and “What are you doing?.”
The answers may surprise you.