Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Lent - From Old School to New Version

Lent begins on Wednesday, February 17th. It has layers -- with something there for everyone, from the most traditional to the most innovative.

But it wasn't always that way.

My little town's high school in the late 1960's was uneasily divided between the kids and grandkids of the immigrants who were largely Catholic -- and the descendants of the old line Yankees, who were largely Protestant. Ash Wednesday would roll around and we would all feel as though we were wearing our "Catholic Badge" smudged in ashes on our foreheads. In a town with a fair amount of anti-immigrant prejudice, it was a badge we wore with pride.

We had something special.

In our world, one in which you were either Catholic or the lump-them-all-in-term, "non-Catholic", to have a special thing like the holy ashes felt like a big deal. It marked us as different but connected to God in some magical way that no one else had. They couldn't possibly understand because they were, as I said -- wait for it -- non-Catholic. The big plus was noticing which teachers had the tell-tale smudge on their foreheads. "Did you know Mr H was Catholic?" "No, did you? What nationality is he?"

Suffering was the key in our Lenten observations back then. I recall when I was five, the nun in my Catholic kindergarten, Sister Mary marched us all in to the church, and gathered us at the foot of the life sized statue of the crucified Christ. In turn she lifted each of us up to kiss the bloody feet of the statue. As she put us back down she whispered ominously to each of us, "See what your sins did to Jesus? Jesus died because of them, and every time you do something wrong, it is like driving another nail into sweet Jesus who only wants to love you."

Well, we were in tears. Even some of the tough kids cried. We didn't want to hurt Jesus. We surely didn't want to kill him. We were terrified. The nun looked on approvingly as we wept.

My parents pulled me out of Catholic school right after that.

Churches then were an integral part of community life, especially among immigrant and post-immigration families. They were an anchor back to a more familiar place, a remembrance, a way of preserving identity in the Massive Melting Pot that was America. And Lent was at the heart of it all. There we were, showing our wares, our specialness, to the world at large. It was like an expansion of every Friday, back before Vatican II when all Catholics had to stay away from meat on Fridays. We were the ones eating peanut butter sandwiches or tuna sandwiches, as opposed to the usual bologna or ham. "Oh, you're Catholic? Where d'you go to church?" was common lunchtime chat.

But back to Lent. It was a dreary time, one in which we had to choose something we really liked to give up. "It better be a serious thing," my mother would say,"or I'll make you give up Bandstand and Ed Sullivan." For kids it was usually some food item -- no chocolate or no ice cream or no candy. "Didju decide what to give up yet?" "Nah, didju?"

Many people still observe Lent in traditional ways, with sacrifice, fasting, prayer and charity. The newer trend, however, is to add something to one's devotional life, to do something good for ones self, or to give more to charity. The emphasis here is not to take on suffering as an act of gratitude, but to improve ones self as an offering to God.

I'll probably do a bit of both. I have selected some tasty foods that I will not eat. And I will be actively doing something (as yet undecided, it's between two) that will do me good every day.

Whether one is deeply religious, or casually spiritual, Lent still has value as a time for contemplation, re-dedication, and renewal. The months of February and March are cold, often gray. They open up to the promise of Easter in April, the arrival of Spring, the sigh of spiritual relief after the solemnity of winter.

It is the on-ramp to the slick highway of Spring. It is the chance to check one's spiritual map, to make sure one is on the right course. It is time for adjustments to be made, disciplines to be taken on.

Lent gives us a bordered time in which we can decide to pray more, to write daily, or to create a weekly gratitude list, or to do yoga faithfully. It is a time to give something to someone every day. There are just over 40 days to Lent. Taking on some new wonderful thing, some healthy practice, some new discipline that will make of us better people is not so impossible for just about 40 days.

Lift Lent into the light, and let it be an expression of thanks for abundant life, for spring-yet-to-come, for surviving the spiritual winters of our lives. Let it be full of the something(s) we do in response to all that has been done for us.

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Anonymous Duchess said...

Well, heck, I think that is a pretty good way to look at lent. I might try it, though I am a few days too late.

2:48 PM  

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