by Cullen Schippe
There is no surer sign that Lent has arrived than the ashen cross on people’s brows as they show up at school or work or in the line at the supermarket. That cross of ashes has long been both a sign of Lent and a sign of Catholic identity, too.
Ash Wednesday is always a busy day in most parishes because folks who may be less than regular participants in parish life and worship still queue up to receive this sign of penance and renewal at the beginning of Lent. We all hear the words “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” These two succinct sentences outline the spirit of Lent—penitence, Gospel living, and a realization that we shall all experience death.
Jesus’ “Lent” in the desert was the beginning of a journey that led through the pathways of Galilee to Jerusalem and his suffering, death, and triumphant resurrection. Our Ash Wednesday is the beginning of just such a journey. That cross of ashes is the starting line of a journey to Easter.
The outset of that journey always seems to include the question, “What are you doing for Lent this year?” The question is most often answered with some specific practice. “I am saying the Rosary every day.” “I am reading the Bible for 15 minutes every day.” “I am going to weekday Mass at least once a week.”
Sometimes Lenten activities sound more like resolutions at a self-improvement seminar. “I am going to lose 20 pounds.” “I am going to exercise every day.” “I am cutting down on sweets.” Although fasting and abstinence have always been essential to Lent, the purpose of such practices is not to produce a slimmer me or to help me embrace a healthier lifestyle.
No, indeed, the purpose of Lenten penance is to open me up to the Word of God, to the world around me, to the needs of others, to my own mortality, and to allow the Holy Spirit to work in me. The call to Lenten penance is a call to conversion—to a change of heart. It is that change of heart that best prepares me to celebrate the Easter mysteries. This shared season of repentance also points out that I am part of a family of faith. I am not a lone wolf. I have many companions on my journey to Easter.
In short, Lent is not so much about doing as it is about being.
Lent is a season of grace—a reminder that no matter how we choose to honor the season, we are acting with God’s help. One way we can dramatize that reality is to alter the Lenten question a bit. Instead of asking “What am I doing for my journey from ashes to Easter?” I might ask “Who am I on this journey?”
I would like to suggest that at the outset of our journey and frequently during Lent we ask ourselves a series of questions that begin with the phrase, “Am I a person who …”
I can share some examples with you, but I am sure that as you look at your own life and ministry, you will come up with some “being” questions of your own.
Am I a person who
puts the needs of others before of my own needs?
is patient and understanding in my dealings with others?
recognizes that I need time for quiet reflection and prayer?
forgives willingly and generously?
admits when I am wrong and seeks the forgiveness of others?
can forego personal pleasure and satisfaction to seek a greater good?
is eager to help those in need—who are hungry, thirsty, sick, lonely, or afraid?
is faithful and loyal and honest?
Matthew’s Gospel also provides some help with “being” questions. Read the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:1-12 aloud and in place of “Blessed are” ask, “Am I a person who,” (For example, “Am I a person who is poor in spirit?) This simple reflection on the Beatitudes helps us see clearly how we all need to be during Lent.
Part of our catechetical mission during this holy season is to convey the spirit and the practices of Lent to those we teach. And, as always, witness and example are a more powerful means of conveyance than are words alone. The kind of persons we are is key to the lesson.
So let’s agree to ask the right questions of ourselves and to experience together a wonderful journey from ashes to Easter.
Cullen Schippe has been in Catholic publishing for well over 40 years and currently serves as Pflaum publisher. Email Cullen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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