Are you eager to experience the beginning of Lent? Are you starting to anticipate the opportunities for deeper prayer, reconciliation, and charitable action? Can you feel the joy bubbling up inside of you? I am, but it has been a long journey to reach this sense of love and enthusiasm for the season. When I was a child, Lent was a somber and very negative experience full of sorrow, sacrifice and rules, rules, RULES! The feeling of joy was relegated to the bygone Christmas season. We never gave a single thought to the concept of Lenten joy! Even the elation of “Paczki Day” (a.k.a. “Fat Tuesday” or “Shrove Tuesday”) was marred by focusing on the seriousness of the season ahead.
Maybe I should explain that in our Polish neighborhood, in Catholic school, the religious sisters would fry “paczki,” just for this celebration. These were raised donuts coated in granulated sugar and filled with prune “powidła” or sometimes jelly. On the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent), in true Mardi Gras fashion, students would be treated to this sweet delight with a carton of whole milk and sometimes chocolate milk! Lest we become gluttonous as we devoured these special treats, the sisters would remind us that this was the “last luxury” we should have until Easter Sunday. For the next 40 days we were to be following Jesus and mirroring his passion and death on the cross in every thought, word, and action. We would be required to “give something up” and some teachers would have students write a note detailing his/her planned sacrifice to emphasize and ingrain the importance of the practice.
Of course, the classroom clown would volunteer, “S’ter, I will give up doing homework for Lent!” Other students would wrack their brains trying to figure out the LEAST painful sacrifice saying,”I’m going to give up Jujubes,” thus leaving the doorway open for consuming every other penny candy of the time. Of course, those of us who had aspirations for the religious life, would take the season very seriously and plan elaborate mortifications like giving up chocolate, soda pop, or “sweets,” which meant cold turkey sugar withdrawal!
As we got older (seventh and eighth grades), along with the reining-in of our gastronomic desires, we were also told to replace “frivolous” hobbies with spiritual reading and participation in various Lenten devotions. It was often during this season that our parish would sponsor a Lenten Mission, which called for a commitment to attend three to five extra one-hour evening sessions of prayer and silence. In high school, we began attending retreats (several days of extended silence, prayer, and religious devotion).
There was only one thing wrong with all these “mortifications,” the only reason we were given was that we needed to counteract our physical weaknesses (our “concupiscence”). Though grueling at the time, I am grateful because this early training and discipline created sturdy foundations for the future trials of life and the resultant spiritual growth. So there is definitely Lenten joy in those memories.
After the Second Vatican Council our Lenten practices became less focused on private introspection and devotion and leaned more heavily toward outreach to our brothers and sisters in need. If we gave up any food, we were instructed to use the saved money to help those who were hungry. When we spent time in silence, it was often preceded by a guided meditation highlighting Jesus’ mercy and forgiveness. Retreats and parish missions included small and large group discussion and much less silence.
Mandatory fasting and abstaining from meat were removed from all Fridays, though they still applied to Lenten observances. Some people chose not to hear, but we were often reminded that those little sacrifices were even more beneficial when done out of love rather than legal obligation. The reasoning behind our Lenten sacrifice became clearer, our physical hunger was intended to point us toward our deeper spiritual hunger. Knowing why we were making sacrifices imbued the action with greater joy.
As years went by, the fervor and excitement which attended the “fresh air” of Vatican II, began to dwindle and sometimes led to spiritual laziness. Since we were no longer bound by a law and the weight of the phrase “under the penalty of mortal sin,” many viewed this penitential season too lightly (if they thought of it at all). More and more people passed up the many opportunities to further their spiritual growth. Retreat houses were closed for lack of participation. But as the Scriptures tell us, “there is a time and a season for every purpose under heaven.”
Today the seats in church may hold fewer people and the world may seem more divided, but Lent still offers everyone a time to step back and examine how we spend our days. It is no longer a time for concentrating on suffering and punishment. Though we recall, in special ways, the terrible suffering that Jesus willingly endured, we also know (as Paul Harvey used to say) “the rest of the story.” As Christians we believe, Jesus is still alive and present in our midst. If that doesn’t make joy bubble in your heart, I don’t know what will.
True, Lent is a time to be honest with ourselves about our own faults and failings, which should cause us to be contrite. However, it is also a time to open our hearts to forgive others as we ourselves are forgiven by God, and forgiveness is always a cause for joy!
Lent is a time of homecoming, renewal, and rebirth which is marked by an increase in prayer, fasting and helping others (almsgiving)! So this Lent I plan to take a break from Social Media (for me that means Facebook and LinkedIn). I don’t know how that is going to go, but it will surely tell me a lot about my inner life. As a Catholic, I will also be observing meatless Fridays. I will tell you that I won’t be giving up chocolate! I learned a long time ago, that only makes me cranky and less like Christ. I will be dusting off some spiritual paperbacks I’ve long been meaning to read or re-read. The time I spend away from my keyboard will be channeled toward prayer and gathering with my parish family. I’m really looking forward to the joy of Lenten introspection, reconciliation, and outward action, aren’t you?