An Intentional Lent: five thoughts

Lent is barely here, and I find myself already a bit nervous. I still have a little box of stray Christmas ornaments that were found around the house, waiting to be stowed away in the attic. My younger children are still enjoying their Valentines from their friends at school. And now, Lent is upon us.

I really want to be all in.

Just as late winter brings about the desire for cleaning and purging our homes in anticipation for Spring, our hearts naturally yearn for restoration… we know something good is coming, but this ‘good’ requires something of us.

So, there is Lent. Let us join in, shall we?

A good Lent takes effort. A good Lent requires purpose. A good Lent has to be intentional, or it quickly becomes a mishmash of what feels like obligations, rules, prayer cards, symbols and rituals that can lose easily lose meaning if we’re not careful.

Here are a few tips that I hope will help me live an intentional Lent this year:

  1. Remember What It’s All About: Catholic Culture says, “Lent is the penitential season of approximately 40 days set aside by the Church in order for the faithful to prepare for the celebration of the Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection. During this holy season, inextricably connected to the Paschal Mystery, the Catechumens prepare for Christian initiation, and current Church members prepare for Easter by a recalling of Baptism and by works of penance, that is, prayer, fasting and almsgiving.”  Lent is NOT about busying myself with so many activities, prayers and sacrifices that I forget its real purpose. Lent has a real and tangible goal, the great crescendo of Easter! That is what we are moving toward. This simple statement does well to keep my mind focused.
  2. Lent is not about ME: When I was a ‘new’ Catholic, I would attempt to offer up numerous things for Lent. Simple, ill-placed logic told me, “The more I offered up, the better my Lent would be!” Well, in reality, I just ended up frustrating myself… trying to keep up with all those self-imposed rules. I also later realized that these ‘sacrifices’ made me focus way to much on myself and not nearly enough on Jesus and those around me. In a way, I had allowed my offerings to become a competition – within myself (could I REALLY pull this off for 6 weeks!?) and with others (I wonder what they’re giving up…). We need to make our Lent about Jesus, not about us. Our sacrifices, prayers, and participation should be acts of love and efforts that turn us away from ourselves and point our minds, hearts and bodies toward our Savior. Anything less than that needs to be prayerfully evaluated.
  3. Choose a few good things:  When we DO choose something to offer up for Lent, we need to choose wisely. Generally, I like to give up one thing that is a challenge for me (this almost always revolves around sugar, let's face it - 'tis a true sacrifice!) and then add in something that will help my faith-life grow (praying the Rosary, reading the Gospel with the my family, read a spiritual book). In the same way, I try to find something that I can do for others – my almsgiving. This could be something like volunteering at the parish, taking food to the food bank, collecting clothes for a maternity home or pregnancy center. Keep things simple, don’t let them become overwhelming.
  4. Don’t get distracted by the peripherals: I have at least a dozen books on my shelf, giving tips on how to live the liturgical year as a family. Crafts, recipes, songs, skits, more crafts, more recipes… there is an endless plethora of ideas! I could ‘do Lent’ for 100 years and never run out of new activities. Don’t get me wrong, these are wonderful resources. Having plans is good. But, keeping space and time in our day-to-day schedule for quiet, for time with our friends and loved ones, for prayer and rest - those are real moments of community and communion. I think those are the times where Lent lives strongest in our souls and where the Holy Spirit can act. So let's try to keep things simple, so we can stay focused on Jesus.
  5. Cling to the Church: The older I get (I’m not THAT old, mind you) the more I realize that the Church really offers me all we need to celebrate the season of Lent! A full participation in parish activities leads us to a rich and holy Lent. we can make an effort to go to your penance service, daily Mass (maybe even just once a week, before Stations of the Cross, mabye?) and visit your adoration chapel. Ask for a list of your RCIA program’s candidates and catechumens. Pray for them. Write them a note of encouragement.  Does your parish have a soup supper? GO! Even if you don’t like soup! Sit with someone you don’t know and make a new friend. Find the person who is alone, and be sure to invite them to sit with you.  Go to Stations of the Cross. Take your family, invite your friends. Give them a Stations booklet. Let them kneel and stand and genuflect, or invite them to simply sit by and watch. They will soak in the beautiful words, the events of the crucifixion, the reverence of everyone in the church, kneeling, standing, praying, singing together. They will know that this is something ‘set apart’.   The camaraderie of joining with fellow Catholics in our parish makes our Lenten journey more fulfilling and beautiful.

As one of my children said once after Stations of the Cross, while the people milled around waiting for soup to be served, “Mom, I wasn’t sure that I liked Lent so much. But, when we’re all here together, it’s like we’re doing Lent all together. We know how the story ends up… so, it’s kind of good!”

Yes! Amen, kiddo!

This is the mission of walking with Jesus during his last days. The mission of standing beside him during his suffering and death. But, we are the lucky ones. Unlike those friends of Christ in Jerusalem, there is no confusion now. We KNOW what happens. There is a secret, whispering joy about Lent.

“Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting…
Blow the trumpet in Zion! proclaim a fast, call an assembly;
Gather the people, notify the congregation;
Assemble the elders, gather the children and the infants at the breast;
Let the bridegroom quit his room and the bride her chamber.

In an acceptable time I heard you,
and on the day of salvation I helped you.

Behold, now is a very acceptable time;
behold, now is the day of salvation.”

– Joel 2, from the readings for Ash Wednesday


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