Wednesday next Feb 22nd is Ash Wednesday and marks the beginning of the season of Lent.
In the Ireland of the past, Lent was a somewhat sombre and gloomy season. Dances were forbidden, marriages couldn't take place, and an air of penance was all around. We all have bad habits that we want to work on, and the 40 days of Lent afford us the opportunity to do just that. In my own family I remember my Mother's attempts to give up smoking for Lent and how her efforts would make her short tempered and irritable; thankfully she didn't last the course and frazzled nerves were soothed on all fronts. She did however go on to make less demanding sacrifices! One of the beneficial side effects of Lent is often the shedding of a few pounds, when an effort is made to forego the sugary treats that are all too tempting. At about age 10, I gave up sugar in my tea and almost 60 years later the habit has endured.
Giving up something for Lent, or fasting in some sense, has an honourable history in the life of the church. But aside from any beneficial side-effects, it has an inherent spiritual value. It is one of the 'heavy armaments' of the Christian life, the others being prayer and almsgiving. These three practices have been described as the three pillars of Lent, and the practice of all or any of them can be a powerful aid to spiritual growth.
Fasting is hard for any of us, food is enjoyable and is one of the great pleasures in life. Using fasting as a means of self-control affirms what the Lord himself said in Matthew 4:4 'Man does not live on bread alone'. One of the great fathers of the church, St. John Chrysostom wrote, 'Fasting of the body is food for the soul'
Almsgiving takes the focus off self and our own needs, and invites to look to the poor and the needy in a spirit of generosity. In our consumerist society, almsgiving is a challenge to step off the merry-go-round of sometimes thoughtless spending, and to use our money for the good of the most-needy. The little Trocaire boxes that we are encouraged to fill during Lent provide the where-with-all to Trocaire to make a real difference in the lives of the poor. It also strengthens our bonds as a human family with responsibilities towards one another. To give to somebody who has nothing to give in return, brings its own blessings. 'Whoever cares for the poor lends to the Lord, who will pay back the sum in full' (Prov. 19:17).
Prayer deepens and enriches our relationship with God and is central to the life of any Christian person. 'Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.' Luke 18:1. Lent invites us to renew our prayer life and to spend time with the Lord. That can be a quiet visit to a church, five minutes of reflection on a passage of scripture, or being part of the Liturgical prayer of the church at Mass. Time spent with the Lord is never time wasted.
So come along on Ash Wednesday and receive the outward sign of you desire to change; but remember it is just a sign; there is no magic in the ashes, they are no more than an expression of a willingness to change - to change for the better. With God's help may that become a reality for all of us.
St. Mary's & St. Patrick's Lucan