With the coming of Ash Wednesday in a couple of days’ time, Catholics all over the world will find themselves turning up in Church for Mass, and mid-way through the celebration, line up to get dirt smeared on our foreheads. Apparently, in some parts of the United States, many people who are not Catholics turn up in droves throughout the day on Ash Wednesday to ‘get’ this ash and purposefully have their faces smudged with a mark of dirt. It is a mark indeed, but much more than just one that is observed on the forehead of our faces.
The mark of Lent has always been a very prominent feature in the life of a Catholic, so prominent that our brothers and sisters who are not of the faith often make references to this liturgical season in speaking to us about our faith life. The loud, lewd and bawdy ‘celebration’ of Mardi Gras or ‘fat Tuesday’ in French have given the unfortunate impression that Lent marks the beginning of an ‘all or nothing’ season, where we feast in all ways possible right before we fast on all things thinkable for the next forty days. For good reason, I am happy to note that such ‘traditions’ are largely confined to certain parts of the world, because for the large part, these ‘traditions’ tend to warp and misrepresent the deeper spirituality that lies in the rich season of Lent.
An old English word, Lent really comes from ‘lengthen’, referring to the time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere where the short days of winter give way to the slowly lengthening of the coming spring season. Having lived in the Northern Hemisphere where I have experienced the four seasons, I can fully appreciate the change that takes place when winter gives way to spring. Literally, it has nothing to do with penance, almsgiving or a more austere prayer life. However, liturgically, it demarcates for us that it is a time to look toward an inward change, a conversion and a metanoia.
Why must we keep coming back to this ‘change’ event in our yearly calendar of our faith? I have even come across folk who ‘complain’ that this annual season is a drag, and that we are too obsessed with our sins and the fact that we are sinners in need of mercy and conversion, so much so that we make it a public event for 40 days each year. Indeed, looking on from the outside of the discipline and deep meaning of our faith, it can appear that we are ‘wet blankets’ in a culture that often decries the promotion of instant gratification, personal pleasure and living a life of wild abandon.
The point of Lent is not so much about purposefully taking on a harsh life for 40 days (which can make us just masochistic), but to remind ourselves that our lives have a deep spiritual purpose and aim, and that often, we miss the mark of that aim. It’s a timely, communitarian reminder to the entire Church to not take all that we have for granted, and that above all, God’s mercy that he has shown in the Passion and Death of Christ is something that we need to be mindful of in our daily Christian living. What Christ did for us in his Passion and Death is not something that we merely look on as an event from a disengaged distance. It is something that necessarily elicits a response from us whose lives have been greatly impacted by Christ’s great act of sacrificial love.
The traditional disciplines of Lent where we fast, give alms and pray are the physical manifestations of what should be going on within our deepest selves as we make that journey inward with Christ. It’s a reminder to not make ourselves the very centre of our lives and that our joys, our sense of what is important, and what should drive us in life has to be outside of us.
Of course, it is not easy to arrive at this spiritual attitude, which is never an arrival point, but a never-ending journey. That is why we need to begin forming proper attitudes early in our Christian lives. As children, we are often taught to ‘give up’ on foods and treats that we love, and this is a good start. What will be even more important is to teach our children the why of our actions. When this is not taught properly, we will think that it is just the act of giving up, and can easily end up being resentful and disgruntled with Lent.
Analogously, I like to tell children that there is so much that our arms can hold on to, and the most important thing to hold on to in life is Christ. But when our arms hold nothing else but what makes us fulfilled, happy and contented in life, we won’t be able to hold on to Christ even if he were next to us. So, Lent is a time to let go of things that we have been holding tightly on to, especially things that have not been too good for our souls, SO THAT we can begin to freely hold on to Christ who is constantly reaching out to us.
This analogy may be a tad simplistic, but it can be applied to all our spiritual lives no matter how young or old we are. After all, each of the disciplines of lent that we take on willingly are meant to help us to walk closer with Christ not just on the way to Calvary, but also beyond, where we rise with him to new life.
So, this Wednesday, when we present our foreheads to be smudged with dirt, let us bear in mind that indeed, we are dust and unto dust we will return, but that it is our souls that, after a constant seeking of change and conversion, will be touched and transformed into images of God.
Lent not only helps us identify what is burdening us in life, but also reminds us to travel light on our spiritual journey.
Nothing helps one rise better than when one is truly traveling light in life.