Today, Catholics around the world will have their foreheads marked (smudged, in most cases) with an ashy cross, symbolizing that all earthly matters are passing: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It's our yearly reminder that while our souls may be immortal, our lives here are not, and asks us the question: Are you making best use of your time on this planet?
Ash Wednesday is the first day in the yearly Catholic pilgrimage known as, a forty-day period of repentance, reflection, and reconsecration in your personal faith journey, culminating in Holy Week and Easter. Among the most popular ways to honor Lent is honoring meatless Fridays (which, in this fast-food culture, can be harder than it sounds, especially for a flesh-loving person like myself), going to Confession, and giving up something for the forty days, usually sweets or some form of Social Media. The idea is to be reminded of how blessed we are and to cultivate sympathy with those who haven't as much. Many Catholics take the money that they would normally spend on these things, say their morning Dunkin Run or songs they haven't bought, and donate it to the missions or their local food pantry. Naturally, a little competition sometimes enters into these things ("You're giving up chocolate? I'm giving up chocolate and donating an hour a week to the food pantry. Boom."), but for the most part, the pilgrimage is both communal and personal. We cover the statues in our churches and drape the altars in purple cloth, and keep the personal privations to ourselves.
One of the great paradoxes in life is that the more you give up, the more you gain. Lent is a time of self-imposed trial, a strengthening exercise for the soul and for the first few years of being Catholic, I dreaded it, for even minor privations are onerous. Gradually, though, it has become one of my favorite seasons. Lent is more than giving up candy and treats. It's learning to give in, to listen, to let go of even minor obsessions and finding that you are stronger without them. During Lent, you learn to more truthfully evaluate your worldly pursuits and ultimately to follow more closely in Jesus' footsteps. By relying less the world, you begin to rely more on the One who loves you best. And that, in the end, is what Lent is really all about.
So begins Lent. How will you be celebrating this season? I can always use suggestions, so leave comments below!