Ash Wednesday is in two days.
When I was a child, my family never missed going to Mass on Ash Wednesday. “Dust you are and to dust you shall return,” the priest would say before pressing his thumb to our foreheads, smudging ashes into a black mark that let everyone who saw us know we were observant Catholics. I used to watch for other people with the mark of our tribe.
And then Lent would be in full swing. Ash Wednesday and Lenten Fridays were fasting days. (Fasting, in the Catholic tradition, means only one full-sized meal, two smaller meals, no snacks, no meat. Elderly people, the sick, and children are excused.) Sundays were days on which we could relax and partake in whatever we had given up for Lent. My usual Lenten choice was to give up candy. One year, I gave up T.V., a particularly excruciating option for me. Candy was easier; I looked forward sweets on Sundays. My mom sometimes reminded me that I could be extra-holy and not take a Sunday break. That was a tough call. Candy and my mother both had a strong pull on me.
Although I no longer practice Catholicism, the Lenten ritual of giving something up still attracts me. I like its aspects of focus, cleansing, atonement for past mistakes. I like the thoughtfulness of choosing what one can do without for 40 days to become a better person. I like thinking about what people we deem holy have given up in service to others. Giving up candy was hard for a kid, but it taught me that I could do without and having those treats later was an amplified pleasure.
That, in particular, is something I think of now when gratification is so easy to obtain. When was the last time I disciplined myself not because I was full or fat or it was convenient, but just because I could? And what are the things that I would let go of for a while to make myself a better person? My list of things to give up now might include wine, television, cheese, red meat, social media, complaining, judging.
There is another aspect to Lent that I’m particularly fond of: almsgiving. Along with becoming a better person through some form of abstinence, Lent encourages giving to others whose needs are not being fulfilled. In this time in our history, when there is so much mean-spirited debate about everything, it’s becoming more important to speak up about how we treat each other, how we help each other, and how we care for each other. No one single person is more important than any other (we are all dust, remember?), but one single person can sometimes make a huge difference in someone’s life. Why wouldn’t we take action to donate food and clothing and money to those who need it? Or to honor the culture of another even if it is unfamiliar to us? To share what we have and celebrate our ability to do so?
These are the questions I will ask myself in this pre-Easter season, even as I admit to being a nonbeliever. Gratitude and compassion do not require a specific church membership; they only require an acknowledgement of what it is to be a decent human being.
Of course, I may still make pancakes tomorrow for Shrove Tuesday. The maple syrup for the pancakes will delight my still-very-much-alive sweet tooth.
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