by Joanie Butman
This week ushers in the Lenten season beginning on Ash Wednesday. Many people celebrate Mardis Gras, but none with more gusto than someone looking at 40 days of abstinence. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Fat Tuesday is when some Lenten observers over-indulge in their vice of choice: sweets, carbs, rich, fatty foods – and for some, copious amounts of alcohol -- before the Lenten season, which for many includes giving up something for the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Could there be more polar opposites than Mardi Gras and Lent? Does the sacrice of one cancel out the excess of the other? Hardly. If that were the case, it would take a lifetime of Lents to cancel out the excesses of my youth.
Over the years I’ve discovered a number of different theories concerning the observance of Lent. There is the camp who argues that Lent ends at midnight Holy Thursday, while others maintain it doesn’t end until Easter Sunday. My thought is if I made it that far, why not choose to go the distance? The Easter Triduum are the three holiest days of the season. Why choose a shortcut now? There is another school of people who claim that Sundays are freebies, and you can eat or drink the forbidden fruit. The mathematical basis for this argument is that if you count the days from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday, it is actually 44 days not the prescribed 40. This anomaly provides the leeway to subtract the four Sundays. I’ve always been suspect of that opinion because of all the days in the week, you’d think Sunday would be the last one on which anyone would choose to be decadent or maybe that’s the psychology behind it. Your guilt overrides the temptation; and with the exception of the Super Bowl, how many Sunday parties have you ever been invited to? Saturday would make so much more sense and be a lot more fun! Plus, consuming a week’s worth of chocolate or wine in one day defeats the purpose. There have been years when I’ve stuck to my resolution for Lent’s entirety. The problem with my success was that I was so proud of myself that my own pride poisoned the effort. We as humans can muck up the purest of intentions.
More importantly, the emphasis shouldn’t be whether you choose to execute your effort with perfection, just perseverance. The only perfection required is the purity of your desire to do it at all and the perseverance to start again even if you slip up. Think of when your children were young. Some of the purest expressions of love are the imperfect ones children present in their early years. You know the type – the bouquet of weeds tenderly offered is the first that comes to mind. They are the cherished ‘I love yous’ that can't be bought in a store, the ones you can’t throw out, the ones hidden in your heart and/or your memory box, perfect in their imperfection. It would be unthinkable to judge or criticize the efforts of a child to express his or her love for you. So it is with God and us. My mom recently shared some my early cards I made for her, and I had to laugh because I signed my first and last name on them. I know there were a lot of kids in our family, but really, did I think she wouldn’t know who Joan was? Maybe I wasn’t so far off the mark. To this day when I call my father and greet him with “Hi, Dad. It’s me.” His response is always a jovial, “Me who?”
As I said last week, there are those who view the observance of Lent as an attempt to kiss up to God, which couldn’t be further from the truth. If it were, my efforts wouldn’t get me much. However, when you offer your desire and perseverance to try to do better – regardless of how imperfect, God ‘multiplies this little gift and fills it with the transforming power of His love’ strengthening and encouraging any effort on our part. This holds true every day, not just the 40 (or 44) days of Lent.
Therein lies the true purpose of Lent for me: to bring me closer to Christ, to strengthen our relationship through His power not my own, to choose to practice perseverance on the small things (despite occasional slipups) so when the big ones come along, I will be better prepared.
What circumstances challenge your ability or desire to press on?