by Will Searcy
This past Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, and aside from being that one day a year when conspicuous smudges on people’s face often go unmentioned, it marked the beginning of Lent. The confusion over Lent, its practice, and what it means is not limited to the ashes on foreheads, though. Many people wonder, whether Christian or not, why we “have” to give up something or go to church a few extra times or not eat meat on Fridays. It can all seem very legalistic, and to some, it can even seem contradictory with a God that loves us and wants us to be happy. Fortunately, these are misconceptions, and while they can shed some light on potential pitfalls, approaching Lent with a full heart is an ideal way to see the fruits of spiritual growth in your life.
In trying to understand the spirit of Lent, I find a quote by C.S. Lewis to be quite helpful. He wrote, “If you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him … Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you.”
What a beautiful way of thinking about Lent! Our fasting, prayer, and almsgiving is not meant to be a heavy burden imposed upon us that we must follow in order to receive a reward. Rather, they are all spiritual tools that, when used correctly, help us to prune away our imperfections and bad habits that prevent us from living in a fuller communion with our Lord and Savior. This is why we begin Lent with Ash Wednesday because it is a time to repent for those sins that separate us from God. Much like the kings of the Old Testament, who wore sackcloth and sat in ashes when repenting, we show our remorse for our wrongdoing by making a tangible and visible sign that shows we recognize the wages of sin are death (Genesis 3:19, Romans 6:23), and that if not for the ultimate sacrifice Jesus made on the cross, we would be eternally separated from God due to our sin. For this, we repent and turn our minds and our hearts toward doing the will of God, not out of obligation, but out of our love for Him and our longing to be ever more joined to Him and to His Son.
I heard a great homily this week that explained this last part. The priest compared our Lenten practice to that of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. One could view that as God imposing this strict set of rules that inhibits the freedom of his people, but when you put it in context, you realize how little sense that makes. Before God led Israel to the point of receiving the Ten Commandments, they first were slaves in Egypt, making bricks in the desert for a harsh and unfair Pharaoh. God then performed signs and miracles to compel Pharaoh to release Israel, parted the Red Sea to ensure their escape when Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his armies to kill them, and then fed them with manna from Heaven in the desert for forty years so they would survive until He led them to the Promised Land. To say a God who did all of that to free His people from slavery only to later want to suppress them with rules defies logic. God did not give Israel the Ten Commandments to enslave them, and Jesus did not teach us to fast (Matthew 6:16-18, Luke 4:2, Matthew 9:15, Matthew 4:1-11), pray (Matthew 6:5-6, Mark 11:24, Luke 11:1-4), or give alms (Matthew 6:16-18, Matthew 6:1-6) to suppress us either. In both cases, God was showing us a path to true happiness, which can only be achieved through an authentic relationship with Him. He was showing us a path to true freedom, to freedom from sin.
So, this Lent, let’s keep the focus of all our Lenten actions where they should be: on a longing for the perfect love God gives. When we give alms, let’s give willingly, remembering the free gift of grace with which God has blessed us. When we pray, let’s pray hopefully, aware that our words are not floating into nothing, but being heard and answered by the Almighty! When we fast and abstain, let’s do so joyfully, knowing that our ability to subject our earthly desires to those of the Spirit are in following Christ’s example and direction and that it ultimately will lead us closer to Him. And above all, let’s remember what Lent prepares us for – for that most glorious day when Jesus instituted a new covenant of the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the dead through the gifts of grace and true faith in Him!