Trigger warning: earnest religiosity ahead.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. There are a lot of folks who seem to take this as a sort of performative event, kind of missing a key passage from today’s reading:
“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.
And then there are those who take it as a moment of self-improvement. No more smoking, or drinking, or perhaps lose a few pounds.
I didn’t really get Lent as a kid (among other things, I thought you were giving something up forever and not just until Easter), and it was only as an adult that it really made sense to me when I had given up drinking alcohol for Lent and I had one of my usual failures in my love life (because being heartbroken is the dominant theme of one’s twenties). So in the midst of my distress, I said to myself, “I need a drink.” And then I stopped because I’d given up drinking and instead realized that what I really needed was God.
And at that point, I realized that the key thing about a Lenten sacrifice was that it should be about giving up something that you do habitually so that you have that frequent reminder to engage in prayer at a higher level than you normally do. The fasting and sacrifice is there to be a reminder of prayer.
And for those who would engage in some positive practice in place of sacrifice like almsgiving or social justice work, that’s great, but that shouldn’t just be a Lenten practice, that should be an always practice. Lent is a time of engaging in a kind of extreme spirituality, going above and beyond what is sustainable for a short period of time.