What I've Learned About Lent

Forget Mardi Gras. A forehead cross of ashes is how many Christians celebrate this season. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston [CC BY-ND 2.0]/Flickr

While much of the attention this week is on Mardi Gras, king cakes and even pancakes, for me it's about Ash Wednesday and what I'm going to give up for Lent.

Lent, if you don't know, is the period of prayer, sacrifice, reflection and good works leading up to Easter.

Ash Wednesday brings with it strong memories of the smudge of heavy ashes on my forehead.

When we were little kids at Catholic school, we'd push our bangs out of the way, wearing our ashen crosses like badges of honor. You'd hope to reach the priest after he'd already distributed some ashes but before he'd freshly dipped into the bowl. If not, you'd have to squeeze your eyes shut as a sea of heavy ashes rained down on your lashes. And heaven forbid you wiped off the marks during the day — even accidentally — or the nuns would glower and pray for your soul.

As the priests lectured about the importance of sacrifice, good deeds and prayer, a big point of discussion among the kids was what we would give up for Lent. No matter what big ideas were kicked around, most of us settled on candy. And really, it's not that different today.

I've tried to convince myself as an adult that it's OK to simply do something nice for someone every day, yet when Lent rolls around, I always feel that I need to give up chocolate, too. (Those early sacrifice-focused nuns made an impact.)

Recently, Pope Francis had a message that resonates with me: "Let us not waste this season of Lent." He's asking people to place emphasis on spiritual works of mercy (for example, comforting those dealing with grief or forgiving others) and corporal works of mercy (including feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless.)

He writes in his message for Lent, "God’s mercy transforms human hearts; it enables us, through the experience of a faithful love, to become merciful in turn." The spiritual and corporal works of mercy "remind us that faith finds expression in concrete everyday actions meant to help our neighbours in body and spirit: by feeding, visiting, comforting and instructing them."

That sounds about right to me.

So what about all the fasting and abstinence?

An 1881 Polish painting of a priest sprinkling ashes on the heads of worshippers
An 1881 Polish painting shows a priest sprinkling ashes on the heads of worshippers. Julian Falat [public domain]/Wikipedia

Since the early days of the church, there has been some type of Lenten preparation leading up to Easter, says the Catholic Education Resource Center. The fasting period during Lent has changed over time, but some key parameters have remained.

One key is the number "40," which shows up frequently in the Bible. Moses stayed on Mount Sinai waiting for the Ten Commandments for 40 days and 40 nights without eating any food or drink. After being baptized, Jesus fasted and prayed for 40 days and 40 nights in the desert before continuing with his ministry.

The rules of fasting have varied, too. Some abstained from all types of meat, including eggs, milk and cheese. Others made an exception for fish. (I once worked with a radio talk show host who insisted that the whole fish exception was a wise PR move by the early apostles who were fishermen looking for a bump in sales — but I'm pretty sure he made that up.)

Today, the Catholic Church calls for abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent, and for fasting on Ash Wednesday and the Friday before Easter, also known as Good Friday.

I realize I'm being Catholic-centric in my descriptions — nearly a dozen years of Catholic school will do that — and that Lent is celebrated by many other Christian denominations, too. Times have changed.

In fact, Slate has declared: "Lent, it seems, isn't just for Catholics anymore," pointing out that more Protestant churches have been dabbing on ashes and fasting as a path to spiritual awakening. As Andrew Santella writes, "If you grew up, as I did, thinking of Lent as the Time of the Frozen Fish Sticks, you can't help but be surprised by the expanding enthusiasm for the pre-Easter season of penitence and fasting."

Even those who don't find religious clarity in sacrifice or abstinence have picked up the practice in some form. There's a broad interest in fasting diets for health reasons with maybe a little spiritual cleansing thrown in for good measure.

As for me, I'm hoping to be kinder, more reflective and prayerful, and I'm going to do my best to practice those works of mercy.

If nothing else, I'm going to hide all the chocolate.