An annual season of penance and reflection is common to many traditions, for example the Muslim Ramadan. So what makes a Catholic Lent unique? What are its best parts?
As with most things Catholic, a big part of the answer lies in the sensory connections. Sometimes, in giving a catechetical workshop, I’ve asked the audience to remember the Lent of their childhoods. A wealth of sense impressions emerges: the fragrance of incense, the singing of “Stabat Mater,” the taste of tuna casserole or fish sticks on Friday, the soft swish of ashes on a forehead, and with older people, the draping of the statues in purple. No one ever mentions the headier doctrines. Instead, it’s immediately clear: messages engraved on all five senses endure. So while this is not a complete or doctrinal approach to Lent, it describes some of the highlights which have touched people enough to change their lives.
Lent Begins: Ash Wednesday
People unaware of this date may wonder why co-workers or passers-by have a large smudge of what looks like dirt on their foreheads. This is part of a ritual where ashes are marked in the form of a cross on each participant. A slight change in the formula spoken when ashes are given is significant: “Turn from sin and trust the good news.” Sin in the Hebrew context was anything less than the fullness of what God wants us to become. While the media and the grapevine may hum with news of “giving up” (alcohol, chocolate, meat, etc.) for Lent, the real fast is from what destroys us, the bad memories, overstimulation, and worries that will sicken us if we focus on them.
No matter what the darkness in our past (argument, illness, divorce, betrayal), the dynamic of Lent is to name it, not deny it, treat loss with gentle kindness, then move on. Whatever vortex threatens to suck us in, we look to the hope offered by Jesus, his dear and welcoming embrace. We know we can make this passage because we’ve done it before, just as our spiritual ancestors the Jews left the slavery of Egypt.