I’ve noticed, over the past few years, that the local media have taken a real interest in Ash Wednesday. There have been numerous reports in the papers and on television about the practice of using ashes to begin the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday services at several local churches have been featured in the reporting.
It’s tempting to think that this might signal a shift in American culture back toward traditional religious practices. It is much more likely, however, that such reporting is nothing more than a reflection of the pathological degree of self-indulgence that has become ingrained in the American psyche. Instead of a nascent awareness of the need for repentance and reform, the media’s fascination with Ash Wednesday is probably little more than shallow curiosity about the possibility of a yet another novel personal experience.
The faithful, who take Lent and Easter seriously, might be tempted to respond to this shallow quest for more, and more interesting, novel experiences by making their own practice of Lent more stringent and less appealing to the curious crowd. I would suggest that we take our cues from Lent rather than from popular culture.
During the time I was a campus minister I took great delight in pointing out to the students that Lenten penance was not to be done on Sundays. Many were confused by the fact that Sundays are always feast days. Fasting is never to be done on feast days, even if those feast days occur during Lent.
The fasting and penance of Lent is not a magical incantation. The goal of Lent is not found in the physical acts of fast and abstinence. If your pants are too tight, or your dress too small, Lent is not the appropriate action to take, nor the place to look for a remedy.
As Lent has no magical effects or superstitious motives, the disciplines of fasting and prayer are not ruined or abrogated by feasting on Sunday, nor by the occasional lapse in memory or self-control.
The penitential practices of Lent don’t automatically make us better people, any more than wishing we were more virtuous can make us more virtuous. Virtue is the result of faithful effort aimed at the goal of being more faithful.
As the only thing that can produce actual positive change in our lives is our conscious choice to change, this is what Lent invites us to do. Lent is an invitation rather than an automatic effect. It is an invitation to reform, not for the short term but for the entire length of our lives.
The ascetic disciplines of Lent are opportunities to allow God’s Grace to change us in positive ways. That divinely inspired positive change will happen only as the result of our conscious choice for repentance, followed by actions that reinforce repentance.
The repentance appropriate to Lent is not repentance from fattening foods or unhealthy habits. You might need to change such aspects of your life, but Lent is not an appropriate excuse to do so because Lent is less about paying attention to self and more about paying greater attention to God.
The repentance appropriate to Lent is repentance from our lack of trust in God and our lack of trustworthiness toward our neighbor. The positive change that Lent intends for us is divinely inspired growth in our capacity to believe and to be credible.
The sensationalizing of Ash Wednesday and other aspects of Christian spirituality is disappointing to me. It seems completely disingenuous to turn repentance into something that is a curiosity or a novelty. Recently, I’ve also found that I have very little sympathy for the version of Lent that becomes a ‘Catholic Weight Watchers’ program. I hope I’m not being judgmental in this regard, but it seems to me that to use Lent for one’s personal advantage is the opposite of what Lent intends.
Lent is self-improvement that chooses not to focus on self. I’m sure that this sounds like complete gibberish to secular society, but I’m not bothered by that fact. I do hope, however, that it sounds sensible to believers. Despite the time that has passed since it was first announced, the Kingdom is still drawing near. It is neither too late nor too soon to repent and believe in the Gospel. (Mk. 1:15)
The meaning of Lent, and its value for our individual lives, is precisely that “this is the acceptable time” to turn to the Lord with our whole hearts. Nothing more, or less, than this is necessary or redeeming.