What are you giving up for Lent? As Mardi Gras increases the urge to binge on anything that may be targeted for fasting on Ash Wednesday, there is a collective Catholic focus on what tangible pleasures will be sacrificed to build holiness over a forty-day period. Somehow, the pillars of prayer and almsgiving are relegated to second-tier status as we debate the rigors of going without salty or sweet, Starbucks or screen time, soda or swearing. The practice is to give up something we like for six weeks and then return to it when Lent is over. What if we re-balance Lent by looking for what will really change our hearts? What if we search for the Lamb of God who will create a change in our hearts that will last beyond Easter?
When my kids were growing up, candy was the go-to sacrifice for Lent. This made Easter literally all the sweeter with the Easter Candy Egg Hunt. This tradition had all the charm and comfort of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy until my oldest two became teenagers who balked at the idea of searching for candy when it could arrive pre-gathered in a basket. However, their little sister was several years younger, and I told them they had to keep up the tradition of The Hunt for her benefit. I tried keeping the older two interested by making sure the loot was worth rooting for. Brach’s jelly beans were replaced with Jelly Belly Sours. Reese’s and Butterfinger Eggs were upgraded to fair trade chocolate with organic cacao. Quarters and other loose change were added to plastic eggs to incentivize my somewhat surly, skeptical teens.
Pretty quickly, the upscale candy wasn’t cutting it and many eggs were left unopened in favor of the limited effort it took to bite the ears off of the big chocolate bunny. This created more work for me because I spent Divine Mercy Sunday opening up the eggs, cleaning out rejected jelly beans, and re-pocketing change. Did I abandon my desire to cling to a clearly fading, idyllic Easter? I admit, I was a slow learner. I kept trying to preserve the sweetness of giving up candy with the rewards of the Easter Sunday hunt. I upped the ante by placing some paper in a couple of eggs, just to see what would happen.
When my oldest opened an egg that delivered five one-dollar bills, she took notice. So did her brother, who glanced at the eggs in his basket and opened one to find Andrew Jackson looking back at him. The look on his face was priceless—or maybe worth $20.
The tradition of The Hunt accomplished what I wanted, for me. I had become focused on my kids giving up candy and relished the joy of generously indulging them with an Easter Candy Egg Hunt at the end of Lent. And that’s what it was—an end. After a sugar high and stashing some extra cash, everyone moved on. What was gained? I had somehow mistaken the annual Ash Wednesday reading to “tear your hearts and not your garments” (Joel 2:13).
Now a few years older, I believe I can offer my younger self a little re-centering. While there are benefits to the discipline of sacrifice, that focus often remains on ourselves. There can be a desire for forty days to go by as quickly as possible so we can return to the normal pleasures we chose to do without. This practice ignores the greater benefit of not going “back to normal.” Lent invites us to metanoia, a complete change of heart that moves forward and leaves the former self behind. Focusing on the pillar of prayer may bring about a more lasting change.
Jesus has taken on the great sacrifice for us and is waiting patiently for us to find him. He is the Lamb of God who was promised in Genesis when Abraham told his son, Isaac, that “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:8).
This Lent we can look for the Lamb by reading the Bible together with our families. The sacrifice is the dedication of time, which is enhanced by praying together with Scripture. The benefit is received throughout the forty days of Lent and will continue to enrich our hearts after the Easter baskets have been packed away.
Ascension offers a Lenten Bible Reading Plan that focuses each week on six different Scripture stories in which God reveals the Lamb to us. After Abraham encourages his son to look for the lamb for the sacrifice, we read about the Israelites being saved by the blood of the lamb in Exodus. In the Gospels, John baptizes Jesus as God’s voice announces, “Behold the Lamb of God.” Soon after, the Lamb of God feeds the 5,000 as a foreshadowing of how he will feed the whole Church. We truly receive the Lamb as food at the Last Supper, and we recognize Jesus as the perfect sacrificial Lamb in Revelation.
As we are reassured so often throughout Scripture, do not be afraid! Ascension guides us through the readings by breaking them down into smaller sections with suggested discussion questions. Parents can learn along with their kids and share their discoveries as they commune with the Lamb of God through the Mass. God is waiting for us to turn to him, ready to embrace us with his love and mercy.
Lent is an opportunity to move forward in our faith, which has greater rewards than going through the motions of giving up something, only to return to it forty days later. Chocolate bunnies can still be the center of the Easter basket at the end of Lent, but the Lamb of God can become the center of our hearts.
Ascension Lenten Readings: Looking for the Lamb
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Regina Neville is a life-long Catholic who has had a career in education and theatre. She has a bachelor’s degree in education and theatre from the University of Northern Iowa and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Yale School of Drama. She has over twenty-five years of teaching experience paired with administrative leadership in the arts and education. Regina continues to work with students in theatre programs in addition to leading policy and governance for education organizations. She and her husband, Tom, have three children.