On Tuesday, Catholics and other Christians around the world will enjoy one last hoorah of indulgence, spoiling ourselves before focusing our attention on self-improvement and spiritual growth leading up to Easter.
Whether at a local church or in our own kitchen, we may open our cupboards and pull out any and all ingredients needed to whip up a big batch of pancakes in order to celebrate Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), as it is known in some circles.
Yes, it will be a fine time to party, as life will undoubtedly run downhill for a span of forty-six days after that, right?
Hardly, but the uninformed might have you believe that, presenting Lent as a subdued and downcast time, not in any way ideal in building us up for Christ’s resurrection.
Yet, do people fully understand what the Lenten season is all about? When we begin Lent Wednesday with a marking of ashes on our forehead, are we entirely aware of the spiritual adventure we are embarking on for the next several weeks leading up to Easter Sunday?
To help better appreciate the significance and reasoning behind this holy period of purification and preparation, below is a summary, or crash course, into Lent and why Christians observe it.
What Is Ash Wednesday?
On this first day of Lent, Christians attend liturgical activities and receive ashes on our foreheads in the form of a cross, signaling a sign of our faith and a reminder of remorse for our sins. We are told “Repent and believe in the gospel,” when we receive the ashes.
With these ashes, we recall our origins from the earth, as well as how our bodies shall return one day to the same form (as indicated by the dictum “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return”).
In true fashion of life coming full circle, the ashes are produced from the burning of palm fronds of the preceding year’s Palm Sunday, which comes the week before Easter Sunday and marks the welcome Jesus received from followers upon his return to Jerusalem prior to his crucifixion.
While many people traditionally eat plenty on Shrove Tuesday, Christians are called upon to fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday. As outlined in the Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law:
“Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. “Canon 1251
What Is Lent?
With ashes administered, we now begin Lent, a period of forty-six days (forty when Sundays are excluded) that commemorates the time Jesus spent in the desert prior to beginning his public ministry as Messiah.
As described in the gospel readings according to Matthew, Mark and Luke, following his baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the desert, where he fasted for forty days and was subject to temptation by Satan.
To honor this sacrifice and conquest over the devil, Catholics and other Christians elect to set aside the season of Lent to refocus on Jesus as we look ahead to his death on the Cross and rejoice over his miraculous return.
What Do We Do during Lent?
Lent is a time when participants can carry out a three-fold mission, with the key pillars being fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Certainly, these components are not new within our Catholic teachings nor are they reserved only for Lent, as we are encouraged to practice them regularly throughout the year. However, a special and renewed focus on each of them during Lent can foster growth and appreciation within our collective faith and respective spiritual journeys.
As Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days, we, too, are called to forgo something for the same period when observing Lent. It is during this time we can deepen our awareness of his sacrifice on the Cross, as well as Jesus’ daily forgiveness of our sins and unconditional love for us.
It should be noted, however, this personal sacrifice should be difficult but healthy, while respecting responsibilities.
For instance, giving up coffee for Lent takes little to no effort if one rarely or never drinks it. Along the same lines, going without something you enjoy regularly—like Netflix, if you watch it often—may seem like an impossible task, but is a small price to pay for a step closer to eternal salvation. A student electing not to do any homework for the Lenten weeks ignores his or her academic obligations and can suffer harmful ramifications. The decision not to use any illicit drugs only during Lent, and then resume the practice afterwards, contradicts our moral duty to obey civil laws and not participate in criminal activities.
Despite the challenge of fasting, we can take solace in knowing Jesus protects us during our struggle, as St. John Henry Newman reminds us:
“Even in our penitential exercises, Christ has gone before us to sanctify them to us. He has blessed fasting as a means of grace, in that He fasted.”Tears of Christ
During Lent, Catholics and other Christian participants are given a reprieve on Sundays as a “mini-Easter,” allowing us to break our temptation. Again, though, this is not designed to allow or condone taking part in any inappropriate behavior, such as beating up a sibling or driving a vehicle while under the influence.
Stressing the importance of recognizing those in need while demonstrating the model of selflessness that Jesus embodied on earth, Lent offers us an opportunity to further concentrate on displaying acts of charity within our communities.
Whether it be through the giving of time, money, clothing or food, volunteer service provides us a perfect occasion to improve society by living out Jesus’ teaching of helping him through helping his people.
Such offerings remind us of the valuable need to remain disciplined and prudent regarding our own desires in life, as well as the standard set in order to be welcomed into God’s Kingdom.
Another avenue for self-growth during Lent that can lead to closer relationship with God is prayer.
While talking with God is a practice Catholics and all Christians should conduct regularly no matter what point in the year, Lent presents us with an especially meaningful time to connect with our Lord and nurture our bond.
We can strengthen our relationship with God through deeper and more frequent prayer activity, such as Scripture readings before beginning our daily morning routine, or praying at mealtimes, commuting to work or school, or during nature walks and other such exercises.
Lent can also provide us a chance to pray in ways beyond simply asking things from God for ourselves. Praising him for his glory and wonder, acknowledging and thanking him for our many blessings and calling on God to intercede and aid in the lives of others are all examples of how we can appreciate God’s presence and works.
So while Lent may seem demanding and perhaps uncomfortable, its purpose is definitely not to cause us pain. During this important season, we are given an opportunity for self-examination in order to better discover both our identity as children of God and the beautiful relationship with the Lord that can flow from that.
As we embark now on this annual adventure in our faith, may we embrace each day Lent brings as an occasion to advance spiritually and better connect with Jesus and our neighbors.
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Matt Charbonneau is a high school religious education teacher who inspires his students to explore a deeper relationship with God. Applying uplifting lessons, engaging activities and insightful experiences, he strives to demonstrate the powerful presence and unconditional love of God in everyday life. For more of Matt’s writing, visit God’s Giveaways at www.mattcharbonneau.com.
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