Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.
Growing up, the idea of "giving something up for Lent" was foreign to me. Somewhere along the line, I heard about Catholics who would give something up and who would also not eat meat on Fridays (instead eating fish). I didn't get it.
In the past decade, it seems that "giving something up for Lent" has become a pretty popular idea. So popular that even those who aren't Christian have begun to follow it.
I've never felt an inclination to give something up for Lent. Still don't.
But I have observed something.
I have several friends who have posted on Facebook about what they are giving up for Lent. People are posting about giving up chocolate, soda, diet soda, artificial sweeteners, sugar, alcohol, and even Facebook.
Each year, as the sharing of Lent sacrifice begins, I often wonder... do people fully recognize what a Lenten sacrifice is really all about?
I've never felt a call to give something up for Lent. I've never felt a call to fast from something. Both are spiritual disciplines with a similar purpose - to draw closer to God.
My understanding of Lent sacrifice (or penance) and a chosen fast at any time of year is that there should be 3 main components to this holy time.
1. Drawing closer to God through prayer. Spending time each day in prayer, spending additional time reading the Bible or in devotional study, stretching beyond your current prayers. Try different kinds of praying, try singing while you pray, pray a few verses of a psalm, pray song lyrics, pray a mantra, pray without words. During Lent, prayer should be focused on seeking forgiveness - recognizing our own sins and seeking forgiveness and strength to not repeat them.
2. Drawing closer to God through personal sacrifice. This is the penance of Lent - giving something up. It's not supposed to be fashionable or light hearted or fun. It is often used as a way to reboot our health choices these days but I think the main idea of the penance is to give up something that will actually hurt and that you will add back. It's giving up a luxury. Generally, you aren't giving something up to benefit yourself. You aren't giving up sushi so that you are spending less money. You aren't giving up diet soda because there is nothing of nutritional value in it for you. The sacrifice should be something you are giving up for God. It should be something that hurts- and something that isn't just replaced by something else (giving up Facebook but then spending all your time on Pinterest, for example). And again, the sacrifice is tied to our sins. We sacrifice as a way of punishing ourselves for our sins, as a way of demonstrating that we recognize our wrongs.
3. Drawing closer to God by giving to others. I believe this is called almsgiving. Purposefully taking action to help others. Take dinner to a friend who has had a house of sick kids. Take a friend out to dinner who has been going through a hard time. Send thoughtful cards to friends and family to say that they are loved. Buy bags of new socks and roam downtown and hand out socks to the homeless. Organize a food drive for a local food pantry. Step outside of your comfort zone to each God's children that you might otherwise disregard. Seek to be aware of the needs around you and then do something to address them.
And here's the thing... through these 40 days of Lent and prayer and sacrifice and giving... once Easter comes, you don't just stop. These 40 days are a time to realign your faith. To strengthen your spirituality. To build on your relationship with God. That doesn't just end after 40 days. There should be learning and challenge and growth and change that occur.
And maybe that's why I don't specifically give something up for Lent. While I don't spend 40 days very specifically focused on prayer and my sin and sacrifice and penance and giving to others... I do feel that these are things that are part of my ongoing relationship with Christ. Am I perfect in them - no way. But am I working to grow in them all the time? And not just during Lent? Absolutely. Do I see the value in fasting or penance? Absolutely.
I just hope that those who are publically sharing their sacrifice are just as willing to publically share their prayers and their giving. Or that those who publically share their sacrifice are privately sacrificing something else - something that is just between them and God and not about wearing their Lent Badge for 40 days.
Maybe because it feels like Lent has become trendy that I haven't felt a draw to participate.
I have friends that have even come to me and sought out some spiritual guidance in determing their plan for Lent. I admire and respect that - those who take it seriously and who aren't afraid to share how seriously they take it.
How do you recognize the season of Lent, if at all? Do you practice prayer, penance, and almsgiving? Were you raised in these traditions or is this something you decided to do on your own? Do you have a spiritual foundation in your choices?