For Catholics, Lent can feel like one of those less pleasant annual rituals we’d rather skip, like a dental cleaning or the filing of taxes. It’s not six weeks of fun.
When we are kids, we are counseled to make Lent hurt by giving up something we enjoy. Sacrificing something we don’t especially like is cheating: My mother would give us “the look” if we tried this tactic. (See: giving up green beans.) When we as adults give up sugar or alcohol or smoking for Lent, the unmet cravings we endure are supposed to remind us of how Christ suffered for us. Those of us whose birthdays usually fall during Lent struggle with the optics of eating a big piece of cake while otherwise respecting the 40 days when Jesus fasted in the desert.
The flip side of Lent is that some of us may actually look forward to that lovely purging feeling, like the Monday when we start a new diet or the new year when we brim with healthy resolutions. Ash Wednesday can seem like the day we will start a new life as a new person, a devout and decent person, one who suffers and sacrifices for the Lord. Lent is going to signal a new beginning.
Having approached Lent in both of these ways, I now suspect that neither one honors the deeper meaning of Lent for a person of faith.
The traditional teaching of Lenten practices is threefold: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We are encouraged to up our prayer life, to rein in the satisfying of our appetites, and to give more to charity. The prayer component might lead us to learn new prayers, or spend time in contemplation, or read holy texts. The fasting requirement speaks to the aforementioned giving up of delicious things or habits. The almsgiving part prompts us to re-evaluate how we can better spend our resources, also known as our time, talent and treasure, to help others.
By observing these Lenten season customs, we hope to come closer to God and to discerning God’s will for us. So every Lent, we have good intentions for six weeks. We try, we falter, and we try again. Then Easter comes, and mixed in with the Easter joy is the small relief of not having to practice the hard Lenten duties any longer. Bring on the chocolate bunnies. We’ve done our time. Until it’s Lent again.
And here is where I’ve felt nudged to adjust my thinking. Maybe each Lent is meant for us to build upon, rather than to start over. Perhaps Lent is actually a step in a spiritual staircase, rather than an unlikable part of a cycle. By the time we have lived through many years and even decades of recurring Lents, we have had ample opportunity to learn from our traditional practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, and to fold them into everyday life. Lent reminds us of who we’re supposed to be, but each Lent should also change us in noticeable and indelible ways.
If life is a journey, Lent is a way station, a rest stop to replenish and fortify our travel. But the forward progress of the trip is what matters. Because here’s the thing about following Christ: We are to dare ourselves to become more Christ-like in our thought and behavior every day. There isn’t — or shouldn’t be — a particular season when we walk our Christian talk. By virtue of our baptism, we’re called to follow Jesus Christ’s example of love and compassion and forgiveness all the time. We are to try, and falter, and try again all the time. Sometimes we get it right. Sometimes we sense that God’s will is actually being done. Sometimes the Kingdom of God is tangibly at hand. Sometimes the year-round nurturing of traditional Lenten practices can produce real-world fruit.
So as Lent bears down upon us once again, let’s make it count. Let’s embrace it. Let’s never let its lessons go.