At my grandparents’ house, yellowed palm leaves were seemingly ever-present behind the silver-framed mirror that hung on the wall near their front door. Immediately after Palm Sunday, the palms would add a splash of green to the mauves and light blues of the room. Yet as the church year wore on, the palms would fade to better match my grandma’s decorating taste. We always knew Lent was approaching when the palms disappeared, returned to my grandparents’ church to be burned into the ashes that would be distributed on Ash Wednesday.
Seeing the empty space behind my grandparents’ mirror always hit me in the pit of my stomach. I have always loved Advent, the season of joyful preparation for and grateful anticipation of the coming of Christ’s birth. Advent is a season I can nestle into, my excitement for Christmas mounting as the days grow shorter. But if Advent is my favorite church season, Lent is the polar opposite. Rather than a cozy winter’s night, Lent feels more like the desert into which the Spirit drives Jesus in this week’s Gospel—long, barren, desolate, and drab. It is not that I mind abstaining from meat on Fridays; it’s a great excuse to drive through McDonalds for fish fillets and fries. It is more that I do not like the feeling of Lent—the feeling of being down in the mouth, the attitude of being hard on yourself, and the undertone of punishing yourself for your sinful ways.
Lent is a season of conversion, and this year what I want to convert is my attitude toward Lent. I figure that Lent has been around a lot longer than I have, so maybe I just need to learn a little more about it in order to find a new way to approach this season. That is what I am going to do over the next six weeks in this blog. Each week I will consider a topic related to Lent, presenting some information about it as well as some ideas about how that aspect of Lent makes sense in our modern lives.
Recently I read something that already is renewing my attitude toward Lent. The key to understanding the Lenten season is Baptism. On a practical level, Lent is the time when catechumens, that is, those wishing to become part of the Church, prepare for the Sacraments of Initiation—Baptism, Eucharist, and Confirmation—that will be celebrated at the Easter Vigil. For the rest of us, that is, those who already have been baptized into the Church, Lent is a time to renew our baptismal commitments. When I think about Lent as a time to focus intensely on living my baptismal vows, it sounds like something I might be capable of doing.
As you begin the season of Lent, take a minute to think with me about our baptismal vows. How are you living them in your life right now? In what ways are you falling short?
- Do you reject Satan? And all his works? And all his empty promises?
- Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth?
- Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, died, and was buried, rose from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father?
- Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?
If you answered no to some of these questions, or had questions about the questions (Do people still believe in Satan? Is there really a resurrection of the body?), that might be the place to begin your Lenten journey. Write down the questions you have; find someone you trust to talk to about your questions. Questions are a part of faith; we do not need to be afraid to bring our questions to God in prayer.
If you answered yes to some or all of these questions, then there is another question: are you living these beliefs? If you are anything like me, this is where your Lenten journey begins. I might be able to say I believe all of these things, but…
- Do I really live as if evil has no power or do I live in fear of evil?
- Do I put my trust in God the Creator or do I trust in myself more?
- Do I treat the world and everyone in it as part of God’s good creation?
- Do I follow the example of Jesus Christ in how I treat others?
- Do I really live as if Jesus died and was resurrected, ushering the new kingdom of God and releasing a well spring of hope?
- Do I trust that the Spirit empowers me to follow in Christ’s footsteps?
- Do I participate in the community of the Church, which includes all the faithful who have lived before us?
- Do I treat myself as a sinner or as someone whose sins have been and will continue to be forgiven by God?