One of the best times of the whole year is Lent. But one of the best things about this weekend is that it is not Lent. Does this ambivalence baffle you? Does it seem like unconvincing doubletalk as you quiver at the prospect of committing yourself to doing without something, maybe several things, for an intimidatingly long period of time? Hardly; for there is balance in the array of graces God gives us. For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1) says Qoheleth (“the Preacher”); and Lent is a season that we all need.
But really, if you are over seven years old, don’t settle for the cartoon notion of Lent: “This year I am giving up (insert one: a) chocolate; b) dessert; c) beer; d) other food product).” Remember: Lent is not a diet. Lent will leave you leaner, but that’s a side effect, not the goal. Devise your discipline according to these principles, and you will have many reasons to be grateful.
Seek the silence. Our days are filled with so much noise -- visual, mental, and social, as well as audio. All of it, all of it, misshapes our relationships and understanding. So this Lent, turn it off: the radio in the car, the television in the home, the web-browser on the screen. Sure, make specific exceptions for yourself: except when I need to check the traffic and weather together on the eights; except for Downton Abbey (or March Madness); except for ordering Mom’s birthday present online. But get rid of the noise that becomes constant; the default distraction of hypnotizing visuals; the aimless poking about the web for useless information and harmful stimulation. Be still, and know that I am God. (Psalm 46:10)
Seek the other. Do not reduce Lent to your personal goal, where you are the principal beneficiary of your new self-control (in your waistline, your budget, or your productivity); make sure you offer something to someone else. “Giving alms” is indispensable to a good Lent; that includes but is not limited to giving money and other gifts to the poor. It also means giving time to the lonely, attention to the ignored, and love to the one we have so much trouble loving. Remember, too, what a gift it is to ask someone to help you. Life is not solitary; neither is our struggle against sin. So your Lent should be not private, but personal; and therefore interpersonal. Seek also the One who desires your company in prayer. Let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and favor, and to find help in time of need. (Heb 4:16)
Seek the cross. Jesus Christ is never more fully revealed as God than in His death on the cross. If you would share that divinity, that holiness, share too his cross. Lay down something that you cannot picture yourself living without. Give something you think you cannot afford. Take up something you think you cannot carry. Then look at your crucifix, each day. The real sacrifice of the cross is available at Mass, so go there not only at the usual times, but also some additional time, i.e., every Wednesday near your office, or every Thursday after you drop off the kids.
If there is some pain or privation in your life not by your own choosing, then Lent gives you something to do with it. Your illness, your embarrassment or failure; your pain, your mistreatment by a false friend; your devaluation at work. Embrace it as your Lenten cross, what you and Jesus are doing together this Lent.
So, yes, eat less. Wear your ashes until they rub away. Eat fewer sweets and fewer treats. Go to Stations of the Cross on meatless Fridays, and write bigger checks to help folks who need. Talk less, and pray more. But that is just the background; this year, take it higher.
Take it seriously, and Lent will be one of the best times of your whole year. But until Ash Wednesday gets here, have seconds and dessert. Play some music and see a movie. Go out together, or invite someone over. Make for a little Samedi+Dimanche+Lundi+Mardi Gras right here in Silver Spring. Because it’s not Lent yet, and that’s good too.Monsignor Smith