For those who do not know, Lent is a journey. It is observed by Catholic and most other Christian denominations. The journey begins on Ash Wednesday, and lasts forty days. During that time Christians practice prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Prayer represents how we relate to God, fasting represents how we relate to ourselves and almsgiving/charitable works represents how we relate to others. The followers of Christ are reminded on Ash Wednesday of their dependence upon God for their very being. The ashes distributed in the ceremony come from the palms from the previous “Palm Sunday.” As the priest or minister marks the forehead of the penitent with the sign of the cross using the blessed ashes he says either of two blessings: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” or, “Repent and believe the Gospel.” The first blessing, a stark and humbling reality of our mortality, the second, more amicable. Yet to follow the Gospel is by no means for the meek. Lent then continues through Holy Week, culminating with death’s final triumph over life by Christ’s Crucifixion on Good Friday, and life’s eternal triumph over death through Christ’s Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
“…better to fast for joy, than feast for misery.” – G.K. Chesterton (The Ballad of the White Horse)
The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is often called “Fat Tuesday,” for it precedes Lent and it is seen as the last feast before the fast of Lent. Many, during Lent, sacrifice that which they hold dear. A personal sacrifice that often is eliminated for the good of the penitent as a test of self-denial. A positive change in the way one lives, rather than, say, giving up drinking coffee (which one often resumes after Lent), is a greater accomplishment of Lent. For if that change is held to, that person emerges from Lent all the better for it. Ridding oneself of a bad habit brings one closer to Christ. And that is the purpose of Lent. One may choose to replace impatience with patience, hate with love, injustice with justice, anger with kindness, greed with charity, indiscretion with prudence, pride with humility, to name a few. By eliminating a weakness, we increase our strength.
It is a difficult task to change from some harmful habits or way of life. Where does one begin? With an act. An act that is contrary to thought. Acts that when practiced continually will conform thought to the act. Good acts foster good thoughts. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen said: “It should be each person’s goal to rid themselves of one sin per year.” How much better would the world be if that were to be accomplished.
We should emerge from the Lenten journey a better person than when we began. Fat Tuesday, I believe, should be ignored; for one should fast before the feast, rather than after. Because the real feast is celebrated on Easter Sunday. And with such a spiritual feast before us, any last self-indulgence before Ash Wednesday would pale in comparison and not be remembered, save for the moment at which it took place.
The goal of the Lenten journey is not to reform, but to conform. The Lenten journey is unlike a trip to Europe, as you travel with companions and meet many people along the way. In Lent you come face to face with but one person; Christ. On that journey you walk with him and are confronted with all that is in you that is contrary to Him. It is the result of the practice of our will over His. If one seriously values his/her relationship with Christ, that person must remove from himself/herself that which reflects less of Christ.
When our life’s journey is over we will stand before He who intercedes on our behalf before God. His judgment will be based, not upon a list of events of our lives from which we can plead our case. The time for making our case has passed when we have passed. We will immediately know our judgment. For when in the presence of perfection we will see our imperfections. As the imperfections in a portrait are easily revealed in sunlight and not by the light of a candle. His judgment will be based on how much He sees of Himself in us. The saddest response ever to be heard by one who stands before the divine judge is: “I know you not.” How merciful we were to others in life will earn equal mercy from Him. However, if that saddest of all responses, in all truth, applies to any of us, then it is not Christ who bars us from heaven, but we ourselves.
Remember, the Lenten journey need not be impossible to complete; for it is not taken alone. It is taken with He who offers us His Yoke which makes the way easy and the burden light.