Today’s the day that most Catholic’s panic. It’s the day before Ash Wednesday, they need to decide on something to give up for Lent. Many will fall back on the old standby’s: chocolate, alcohol or swearing. In a desire to return to a more “Catholic” Lent, some may even choose to give up meat for the next 40 days. As a teacher, my favourite is always the student who declares that they are going to give up homework for Lent – to which I always tell them that their Lenten observance is supposed to make them a better person.
In many ways, anything that I write here to help you prepare for Lent is already way too late. To make a good penitential Lenten observance you need more than 24 hours to reflect on how to best prepare your heart for Easter’s redeeming grace. In much the same way you should put more than 5-minute’s effort into making your examination of conscience before confession, getting ready for Lent should take a lot of soul searching. Come to think about it, Lent can be like a prolonged visit to the confessional before the liberating experience of reconciliation of the promise of the resurrection.
In the days and weeks leading up to Lent, when people ask me what I’m giving up for Lent, I’ll generally reply, tongue firmly planted in cheek, that there are just some things that can’t be said outside of the confessional. After we share a good chuckle I’ll move on, either literally or conversationally. In other words, it’s none of their business – and Christ would have us all keep it that way:
And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Mt 6:16-18)
Recently, as I was preparing myself for Lent, I was intrigued by something my friend Patrick Sullivan said in one of his CatholicMinistryTV videos: that we should not give ourselves our own penance during Lent, but rather we need to perceive what God has in mind for our penance. In many ways, this makes a lot of sense – when we are sick, we go to the doctor for a remedy, we don’t self-medicate. The same can be said when we want to expand our horizons and deepen our wisdom; we look to a teacher to guide us on our quest for knowledge and understanding. If we attempt either of these on our own (medically or academically) we will turn in circles with no direction, often remaining mired in our illness or ignorance – but with the appropriate guidance, our horizons become limitless. The same can be said for our spiritual life, and when it comes to our immortal souls and the depths to which our sins have offended God, only He can tell us how to make amends.
Although Lent begins tomorrow, it’s not too late to begin reflecting on how God wants us to make amends for our sins so we can obtain his promise in Christ’s resurrection. All we need to do is listen to what he whispers in our hearts.