Hello everyone, it’s Ash Wednesday! I went to Mass this morning at 6:15, and it was poppin’ for a weekday Mass, filled with folks who just couldn’t wait (like me) to receive the Eucharist and their ashes on their foreheads. It was pretty awesome!
In my last post, I promised to share some practical tips on making this Lenten season one of spiritual growth. But if you’re still unclear on what Lent is and why it’s important in the first place, check out that post a bit more and click some of the links.
So with that, let’s begin!
1. Lent is NOT just about giving up stuff or doing stuff for the sake of doing it. – During Lent, the question that often comes up in conversations is, “So what are you giving up for Lent?” But Lent isn’t fundamentally about “giving stuff up”; fasting (and more broadly, self-giving) is important, but it’s a means to an end, not the end itself. The purpose of Lent is to renew and deepen our personal relationship with God (and with his Church, which is the Body of Christ on earth). The pillars of Lent, which are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, are tools to help us in this purpose, to help us turn away from sin and grow closer to God.
2. Lent is NOT Catholic Weight Watchers! – if you’re giving up junk food, candy, ice cream, or other foods just because you need something to give up for Lent, and you think it’ll help you get that beach body…stop right now and read through point #1 again. And again. And again. Now rethink what you’re intending to give up, and why you’re intending to give it up, and move on to the next points 🙂
3. That being said, true fasting is an important spiritual practice. – Real fasting is not simply a physical act, but also an act of the mind, heart, and soul. The intent behind fasting and other forms of self-denial is to strengthen our wills by controlling the physical appetites of our bodies. Some of these appetites can be benign, but others can be sinful and harmful to our souls (think lust, gluttony, etc.). Fasting reminds us, as Jesus said, that man cannot live on bread alone; it reminds us that we are not solely defined by our physical aspect, but that we have mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of ourselves which also need care. Sometimes we get so distracted by physical wants and desires (as opposed to legitimate needs) that we lose sight of what is most important, which is God. For example, we know that living a healthy holistic lifestyle to help prevent illness and injury is a good thing, but going overboard over diet and exercise because you want that sexy beach body (and “benefits” associated with such…a matter for another day) might be a bit off track.
Another aspect of fasting is that these acts of self-denial bring us closer to Jesus, who made the ultimate act of sacrifice by giving up his life for the whole world. Giving up your favorite dessert might seem like nothing compared to that, but it does in fact move our wills closer to the will of Christ, which is one of self-giving love to others. On the other hand, giving up deeply ingrained unhealthy or sinful habits can be a major challenge that even more clearly helps you relate to the sacrifice the Jesus made for us, and if you choose to take that on, God will send you grace to help you through it.
So basically, it’s not as much what you give up that will help you grow spiritually, though that can be quite significant and challenging on its own; it’s why you give it up that makes a difference.
4. Don’t forget about prayer and almsgiving! – Prayer and almsgiving often times get neglected, but these also are opportunity to grow in relationship with God. Prayer is, quite simply, conversation with God, and all strong relationships have good communication. There are many ways we can pray, whether they’re the classic prayers you were taught when you were little, deep written reflections from spiritual writers, even casual conversation with God.
Another important aspect is almsgiving and works of charity, which helps to reconcile us to God in the people he created, our neighbors, especially those in need. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us that whenever we give food and drink to the hungry and thirsty, welcome a stranger, give clothes to someone who doesn’t have them, visit and comfort the sick or imprisoned, we do it to him (he also reminds us that when we ignore the least of our neighbors, we ignore him). It is important to share the gifts that God has given to us with the people around us, not just our money, but also our time, and most especially our love. Mother Teresa once observed that the people in third world countries suffer from physical poverty, but those in developed nations tend to suffer from emotional poverty.
5. Today on Ash Wednesday, get your ashes as early in the day as you can. – You might be thinking to yourself, “What’s wrong with you? People would be staring at me all day! So not down for that! And didn’t Jesus say something about anointing your head and washing your face when you fast so that no one knows what you’re doing but God?” But here’s a few reasons why you should:
5A. In Matthew 6, Jesus does say that…but if you read the entire chapter, we see that what Jesus is instructing us to do is to not to act like the hypocrites, i.e. to perform public religious acts specifically to get the attention and recognition of others. Just as I’ve been saying all along with this post, it’s not just about doing, it’s about the intentions we hold in the depths of our hearts.
5B. It serves as a reminder to the Catholics (and Christians, as some denominations also celebrate Ash Wednesday) you see today that today’s a good day to go to Church and receive their ashes. Seriously, we all get busy and forget important things in our daily lives, so having reminders are very helpful. Plus, think of it as your act of charity for the day! 🙂
5C. It’s good for your humility – Yes, people may look at you funny, and maybe even point (people have done this to me today). But if we get caught up in our appearances and what other people think about us, we don’t have time to serve God and the people around us.
5D. It presents the opportunity to allow Jesus to use you to share your faith with others – as a whole, Catholics tend to be pretty lousy about sharing our faith, often using the cop-out by quoting St. Francis (but not really, as he never actually wrote it) “Preach the gospel, and use words if necessary.” But in 1 Peter 3:13-17, the first pope, St. Peter, tells us that we always need to be prepared to give an explanation for the reason for our hope, Jesus Christ. While we wear the ashes that reflect our inward penitence today, there will be people who ask us why we do it. You might be worried about not knowing what to say, or how to say it, so this might be a whispering from the Holy Spirit that you need to study up a bit on what the Church teaches. But also keep in mind what Jesus tells us in Luke 12:11-12, that we don’t need to worry about what to say because the Holy Spirit will teach us what needs to be said. So be courageous, be studious, and do not be afraid!
6. And finally, absolutely THE MOST IMPORTANT BIT OF ADVICE: take time to reflect on your life, on your relationship with God, and most importantly the times you chose to turn away from God by choosing to sin. Then get your butt to Confession. – If you ignore everything else that I write, please please at least consider this one! Whether you’re a regular at the confession line or you haven’t gone in months/years/decades, now is the time to go. Scripture tells us that “the wages of sin is death.” A sin is an action, a lack of action, or a thought that violates God’s law and therefore damages our relationship not just with God, but with the people around us, even sins you commit that you think people don’t know about. But God, even though we choose to turn away from him, chooses to continue to love us, want what is best for us, and offers us the opportunity to be reconciled to him through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Jesus, while on earth, gave his Apostles his authority to forgive sins, and the successors to the Apostles, the bishops, and the men who assist them as priests, offer us this chance, so take Jesus up on the offer!
I hope this was helpful to you! If you just can’t get enough and you’re looking for even more practical advice on Lent, check out this article by Deacon Bickerstaff:
In my next post or two, I’ll share some of my personal plans for Lent, especially because I’ll need your help with one of them. Have a blessed Lenten season!