A few weeks ago, I sat in the pew listening to a pre-Lenten homily. My mind immediately asked the familiar question: What am I giving up this year? As I was mentally running through the list of my usual Lenten promises, the priest seemed to divine my thoughts. Why do we give up the same things each Lent?
Usually, I refrain from eating in between meals: no snacks, just three meals per day. At first, it’s difficult. Like any dietary change, the first few weeks are constant reminders of what my body is going without.
But often, by the end of Lent, I’ve become accustomed to my change and the lack of snacking seems to be a habit. In other words, it doesn’t seem as though I’m trying.
What precisely am I giving up then? If the purpose is self-denial, what am I truly denying myself after the first few weeks?
When the priest asked his congregation why we routinely give up the same things each Lent, my immediate thought was that it’s easy. I didn’t have to give much thought to the Lenten question. I had basically settled on my usual Lenten promise a few minutes into the homily. But wouldn’t that be the opposite of a sacrifice? It’s not meant to be easy. On Friday, I went to lunch with a friend who called attention to the fish fries promoted around town. He then asked about the purpose of Lent, beyond the excellent seafood.
As I tried to explain that we prepare ourselves for Jesus’s death and resurrection, while also preparing ourselves for our own mortality, I realized what the pre-Lenten homily had been trying to get across.
To the outsider, Lent seems as though it’s a performance of restraint: we restrain from excess, we give up our favorite foods, we abstain from meat on Fridays.
But what others fail to grasp is that the tangible act of giving up is meant to be a symbolic action of our relinquishing of sin from our lives.
Except, for me, refraining from eating in between meals no longer created that symbolic action. My Lenten sacrifice had stopped being a sacrifice, had stopped serving its purpose.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) website contains sources for Lenten practices and reminds us of this deeper purpose: “The key to fruitful observance of these practices is to recognize their link to baptismal renewal.”
How often do we actually create that link? How often do we enact a “conversion of our hearts and minds as followers of Christ”?
This year, I followed the suggestion of the priest to reflect on my life, my day to day practices. Negativity and pessimism have become commonplace. So, this Lent, I’m returning to the joys and innocence of baptism.
As part of my return to conversion, I have been making a point to recall my gratitude and blessings. For each negative thought or complaint, I force myself to look at my life and my actions differently to see how God has acted in my life that day.
I’d say this has been my hardest Lenten promise to this day.
While I made that decision for myself, others around me have no desire to refrain from complaining about departmental politics or the changing tides of education and academic settings.
But what I’ve realized is that by forcing myself not to participate in the pessimism surrounding me, I’ve become a happier and more energetic person. I seem to be buoyed by the blessings that I can count.
The takeaway thus far has been a constant reminder of the ways in which God looks after his own. As we turn our hearts and minds back to God, we begin to realize how prominent he is in our lives.
Heather Bozant Witcher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.