Look, I’m not sure how or when it happened but the year has rolled around again, and it is Ash Wednesday. Surprisingly, today for the first time, I actually remembered. Every year, on about the Monday before Ash Wednesday, someone will ask me the standard, “so…what are you giving up this year?” Usually I’ll proceed to stare at them blankly until the penny drops and it all clicks into place, even though I vowed I wouldn’t forget this year.
Hey I’m human, I forget things. But this also usually means that I end up ‘giving up’ something pretty superficial just to get on the Lent train. When I was a kid, Lent was great. It meant I got to get out of eating all the things I didn’t like because, hey, “I’m doing it for Jesus mum!” (you can’t fight that logic).
As I got older, Lent became the perfect time for a detox; no carbs and definitely no sugar. It didn’t matter that I’d failed my New Year’s resolution, because Lent was here to restart the healthy living. All in all, if I worked the system right, Lent has always been pretty easy. But here’s the thing – Lent isn’t meant to be easy.
Now don’t get me wrong, I understand that considering something ‘easy’ is super subjective; what is easy for you might challenge the heck out of me. There is this story in the Bible, in the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. It tells us that he was tempted but, “He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.” (Mt 4:2).
As I looked at this story again recently, I realised that I can’t remember the last time I felt famished. And the truth is, no matter how I spin it, I’ve been taking some short cuts through the 40 Days of Lent.
Ash Wednesday is more than just the start of 40 days of fasting from something you love. Today at Mass a Priest will mark the foreheads of Catholic’s all around the world with ashes, as a symbol of penance and contrition. Yet they are also a physical reminder of God’s mercy – He sees our struggles and our sacrifices, big and small – and He loves us!
I’ve been praying about what “to do” during this time, reading a whole bunch of blogs and asking all my Catholic friends what they’re doing, in the hope of finding something to make this time more meaningful. Finally, I turned to my Bible and found another story where Jesus himself gives us three clear instructions about how to do this whole prayer and fasting gig:
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus himself gives us a whole lot of instructions about how to pray and to fast that we can look to as we enter into Lent. He encourages us to be authentic in our giving, sincere in prayer, and joyful in fasting (you might hear these readings if you head to Mass today, but check out Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18 to have a read for yourself).
Let’s look at those three hot tips for a great Lent…
You might have heard a word called almsgiving. It’s a pretty old word, which has its roots in the concept of mercy. So this means when we give, we’re actually showing mercy. How cool is that? Lent is a time when we are called to almsgiving and there are so many opportunities to give. You might try donating a dollar a day to a charity, or saving that $5 you were going to use to buy a coffee and paying it forward for someone else to get a free one. Maybe this Lent you could donate some of the clothes cluttering your wardrobe and donate them to Vinnies, or donate food to a shelter? There are countless ways that you can give of yourself throughout Lent, and there is no perfect way. Have a think about some little sacrifices that you can make that would bring joy to other people throughout this time.
Ahh prayer, my old friend. The biggest struggle I have during this time is prayer (yes, I find this way harder than fasting!). BUT Lent is a specific time in the year which we can set apart to intentionally draw closer to God. This might mean going to Mass or Reco more often during Lent (you can even hit those up daily, how great right?). I often find it hard to focus in prayer, or to find the words to say, so if you’ve had similar struggles, I’ve got two things that I’m personally picking up over these next 40 days that you can try as well. First, I am going to try to set aside a few minutes each day to pray for something specific; maybe the poor, the sick, my family and friends, and my own relationship with Jesus. The second is scripture – I’m going to try setting aside 5 or 10 minutes each day to read a passage from the Bible and reflect on it. If you’re unsure about where to start, take a look at the Daily Readings of the Church.
Fasting is more than a diet choice! Fasting is an outward sign of inward concern for those who are forced to fast due to poverty, injustice or other needs. Starting today, we have an opportunity to dedicate our fasting (and the frustration that usually comes with it) to those who will go without. Fasting should be a challenge, without being silly or dangerous. Try giving up drinking tea and coffee (I know some people who are giving up drinking everything but water) or giving up eating-out during Lent (no Maccas runs for 40 days is a genuine struggle!). Some of the money you save could go to those in need. And while ‘fasting from homework’ might feel like a fun idea, try fasting from complaining about homework instead.
Something that I heard a few days ago from a friend really struck a chord in me. It was this: after these next 40 days how will I leave the world a better place? Take some time to share your Lenten promises with a friend – encourage each other, share what is hard and what is going well. Now it’s time to start this journey toward Easter together.
We’ll see you on the other side!