A couple of weeks ago we heard the famous Hymn to Love by St. Paul. You remember. It’s the amazing passage that tells us what love is and isn’t.
In this hymn, Paul writes:
When I was a child, I used to talk as a child,
think as a child, reason as a child;
when I became a man, I put aside childish things.
Let’s remember an important distinction. Paul uses the negative word “childish.” That’s different from “childlike,” which is a positive characteristic. To be childlike means to be simple and open to a sense of awe. To be childish means to be self-centered and manipulative.
It was common in past years to explain to children that they should “give up something” for Lent. Many people, because they never continued their learning in the Faith past childhood, still think that’s what Lent is about: giving up candy or something similar that children might do.
But as adults we cannot benefit from Lent if we enter into it with the understanding of a child. Lent is not about giving something up. We can do that as part of our Lenten observance, but that’s not what Lent is about.
Let’s hear first what Jesus has to say about what we should be doing. In today’s gospel reading Jesus gives guidance on the three practices of Lent: almsgiving, fasting and prayer. Notice he did not talk about not doing things. He talked about doing things.
The first step in an adult observance of Lent is to realize that we are being asked to do more than usual, especially in three areas: giving to others, prayer and active fasting.
You may have noticed that these three practices are designed to counter a childish worldview:
In almsgiving I am invited to consider that perhaps others need some of my resources — time, talent and treasure — more urgently than I do.
In prayer I am being asked to step up my awareness that perhaps I am not the center of the world and that sometimes I need to remember to say “thank you.”
In fasting I have the opportunity to realize that perhaps it is not good for me to have everything I want whenever I want it.
There’s a danger in the practice of “giving something up.” It can become too internalized, and an occasion to sort of quantify or evaluate spiritual progress through determination and willpower. But when we try to practice authentic Lenten practices of almsgiving, prayer and fasting, we can allow ourselves to be weak and filled with God’s strength instead of our own. We do this by allowing ourselves to be open and compassionate and vulnerable, and then allowing God to guide us to do the right thing.
We will see the poor person in our midst and be moved to give. We will hear the voice of God in our hearts and respond in prayer. We will become disenchanted with consumption and allow ourselves to turn away.
Here are some idea for Lenten observances. I’m not saying you should do these exact things, but maybe these will get you thinking.
You can give alms by serving breakfast here at Good Shepherd on Friday mornings with Martha’s Kitchen if your schedule permits. You could go online at Kiva.org and make a $25 microloan to someone trying to start a small business in a developing nation. You could clean out your closets and give away all those clothes you’ll never wear again.
You can increase prayer by coming to evening prayer at 5:30 p.m. on your way home from work Wednesdays during Lent. You could place before God all your concerns for the day during a morning walk or turn off the radio in your car on the way to work to do it. If you don’t have a cross on your wall at home, put one up and think about it occasionally when you walk by.
You can fast by stopping smoking and giving your family and friends a few more years of your love. You could make an effort to stop using or reducing use of plastic bags at the grocery store. You could cut back on “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” and read a chapter of a spiritual book instead during that hour.
Again, these are just ideas, because there is a particular way of living Lent that is special to each of us.
The ashes we will receive are made from the palms we wave in celebration on Palm Sunday. These signs of joy are burned to become symbols of penance. But we will wave palms again come Palm Sunday. And often when we see images of the saints they are holding a palm branch as a symbol of triumph.
That ultimate triumph we look forward to is God’s triumph, not ours. Before we can enter the joy of Easter, we take 40 days to remind ourselves that not everything is about us.
In the words of Psalm 115,
Not to us, Lord, not to us
but to your own name be glory given.