It’s easy to observe Ash Wednesday and Lent and totally miss the point. We’ll discuss here what they are truly about and how to follow them with an authentic faith that makes a difference in our lives.
Once again we begin our Lenten journey. Every year, as we come on Ash Wednesday to receive our ashes and begin our journey, our hearts are always filled with the desire to grow closer to God and to make these forty days of Lent truly a time of conversion. And yet, many of us discover every year that we haven’t received everything we expected to get out of Lent. Sometimes perhaps it’s because our Lenten observances are not strong enough. Let me give you an example from my own life:
When I was in the seminary, I was once thinking about what to give up for Lent, and I realize I liked a good cup of coffee after dinner. So I decided to give up my coffee after dinner during Lent. But as I entered Lent I discovered I needed something to settle my stomach after dinner, so I decided, “Well, tea is not coffee; I can drink tea!” I never used to drink tea, but I thought this would be a good alternative. Lent came and Easter followed, and I found I enjoyed my tea very much, so I continued to have tea after supper every night instead of coffee. Then the next year when Lent rolled around I was looking for something to do and I said, “I can give up my tea and have coffee instead!” I could go my whole life going back and forth from giving up coffee and tea and never really doing anything penitential. That could almost be like a child who gives up vanilla ice cream and has only chocolate, and the next year gives up chocolate ice cream and only has vanilla. I think we can all see how pointless such an observance would be. But then sometimes maybe we tried to do too much. We get overambitious and we set unreasonable goals for ourselves. For example if we were to say “I’m giving up TV for all of Lent”, we might find that a little bit too much to handle. So maybe just giving up a certain amount of TV during Lent, maybe pick one day of the week – perhaps Friday – and give up TV on that day.
But sometimes we are perfect at what we decide to do, and yet Lent still doesn’t have the full effect that it could. Imagine, for example, you decide to give up candy during Lent and you’re good; you don’t touch a piece of candy for the entire Lenten journey. Then Easter Sunday comes and you get yourself an Easter basket and you go on a binge and you eat all the candy you would’ve had during Lent and then some, and quickly discover on Easter Monday you’re no different person from what you were on Ash Wednesday. Well, if that’s ever happened to you – and believe me it’s happened to me many times – then perhaps were only going about things as a battle of willpower or perhaps just doing penance for our sins but not maximizing what could really happen. Ideally Lenten penance should be aimed at helping us grow in the virtues we need to achieve, so if I know there’s a certain area that I need to improve in my life, I should look for a Lenten practice that will help me grow in that area. Let’s take one example: if I’m always the type that does binge spending, that I buy whatever I want whether or not I need it, an effective penance for that would be to agree that every time I buy something for myself that I don’t really need I give the equal amount of money to the poor. That would end binge spending rather quickly!
But whatever we choose to do, nothing will make any sense if were not joining it with prayer, and sometimes that can be the thing that is most lost in our Lenten journey – praying. Perhaps it’s because we don’t have a barometer – something to measure whether or not were improving in prayer. It’s easy for us to know if we’ve faithfully avoided eating candy all during Lent, but to say I’ve improved in prayer? How do we measure that? I think the best thing to do is to set ourselves a practical and physical goal, perhaps of spending a certain amount of time in prayer every day and remain faithful to it. Don’t try to make it too much; don’t say you’re going to spend three hours in prayer every day: you won’t do it! Some people could say they will spend an hour every day and keep to it, others maybe only a half-hour or even 15 minutes. But if we commit ourselves to a reasonable amount of time every day and make sure we do it then we will be praying every day and that prayer will be the piece necessary to make all of the rest of our Lenten observances more profitable for us spiritually. So set a small reasonable goal, may be just a few minutes every day, whatever is appropriate for you, and if it comes to a day where you’ve completed the time and you want to spend more time, great! Now we are really growing in our prayer because were looking for more time. So in addition to the traditional things we do of self-denial and almsgiving – reaching out to the needy – let us not forget to add prayer into the mixture. Here at St. Ann’s Parish we are giving everyone who comes for ashes on Ash Wednesday a little packet where there is a card on which they can tell us what they did in the course of the week – all anonymously – and then just put the card in the Sunday collection, and will tally it and show the parish how much we collectively prayed during the past week. Hopefully, we will see ourselves as a parish growing in prayer. We can also do that for ourselves. If we started with 15 minutes a day in the beginning of Lent and ended with a half-hour, we will have a concrete measuring rod to show how much we have increased our time in prayer, and if our time in prayer has grown, I guarantee our quality of prayer will have grown as well, and when Easter Sunday comes around we will discover we did not merely battle our willpower to see if we could give up chocolate or whatever it was for forty days, but we will truly have grown closer to the Lord in our prayer, and we will be different people on Easter Sunday than we were on Ash Wednesday. A blessed Lent to you all!