Ash Wednesday. Possibly my all-time favorite day of the entire Church year. As many of my regular NSS readers already know, I am a Lent person. This season resonates with me in a powerful way. The three pillars of Lent — fasting, almsgiving, prayer — are beautiful reminders of what this season is supposed to be about. Contrary to current pop Catholic cultural views of Lent, these weeks are not meant to focus on how bad we are or how we need to deny ourselves things only to make up for how bad we are. They are not meant to be “negative.” These weeks are meant to be a time for us to strip away the stuff that gets in the way of God — whether those things are too much food, too much gossip, too much consumerism, or not enough quiet time, not enough prayer, not enough care for others. But all three things are important, all three things “positive.” To think that one thing is unimportant is to miss the point of Lent.
Fasting — whether it is a total fast from food for a brief time or a partial fast that involves giving up one thing for a set time — helps us to loosen those earthly ties that bind us. By getting rid of even something small that tends to get too much of our attention or desire (like chocolate or coffee or red wine) we open up a little room for something or someone better to fill the void, someone like God.
God is just waiting for us, waiting for that moment when we realize that the way He fills us up is better than anything our world can provide. Fasting has lost some of its allure these days, seen as something too focused on penance and not enough on others. But it’s only by getting rid of some of our external desires and acknowledging our weaknesses that we can experience the internal conversion that leads to a place where charity can really take root and grow.
And we certainly can’t skip over charity (or almsgiving) because that is so critical to our lives as Christians. To skip that would be to skip over the heart of the Gospel. Too often I think we get caught up in charity as being something larger than life, something that requires too much time or too much money, perhaps time and money we can’t afford to give. Charity can begin, as the cliche says, at home. Sometimes the people who most need and most deserve our kindness and care are the people we live with. If we can’t be charitable and compassionate toward them, chances are we won’t get very far in our other efforts out in the world. At least I think that’s how it works for me.
So we can begin where we are and work our way outward, which is kind of freeing. You don’t have to travel to a Third World nation or even to an inner city to begin to work on the pillar of charity. Yes, it would be nice to get there eventually, but for now, at this moment in time, you can practice charity right where you are.
Of course, you can still do you part for the poor around the world by picking up a Rice Bowl and donating money to Catholic Relief Services. Every time you give something up, whether it’s a candy bar with lunch or a burger on Friday, you can put the money you would have spent into the Rice Bowl. Once again, fasting and almsgiving work together, becoming a prayer in action.
Prayer should run through everything — through fasting, through almsgiving, through Lent, through our lives. Not just the usual vocal prayer that we are used to during Mass or before meals or as we drift off to sleep at night, but the deep prayer that brings us face to face with God, to that place where we finally listen to the whisper of the Spirit that is usually lost in the chaos of our ordinary days.
Lent. A season of repentance and renewal. A time to move forward and inward. A forty-day stretch of spiritual growth. “Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Those beautiful words of Genesis 3:19 are not meant to scare us or fill our days with sorrow but to energize us and fill our hearts with new hope and new strength. We can do better — pray better, love better, be better. Today, marked with the sign of faith in ash on our foreheads, is a day to begin again and to look forward to the joy of resurrection that awaits us at the end of the journey.