The official title for Lent, Quadragesima, is Latin for “forty.” Consider it a forty-day retreat.
Starting on Ash Wednesday, faithful Catholics are “marked” with the sign of the cross. The ashes of burned palms signify that we, as mortal beings, will return to dust one day. The outer person is meaningless in death. Who are you inside?
When I was a kid, it was all about giving something up. Candy, usually, and if we made it through those forty days of Lent, there was a big reward on Easter Sunday: a wicker basket filled with foil-covered chocolate eggs, a big chocolate rabbit, jelly beans. Plenty of sugar.
As a teenager, we shifted gears and started focusing on doing something positive, usually for someone in need. Go visit an old person, make an offering for the poor, be kind to your sister.
Lent is about sacrifice, but not in the suffering and gloomy sort of way. It’s a way to focus on the inner person by depriving oneself of certain extraneous things. You can make a sacrifice for forty days. And if it hurts a little (sugar, caffeine, cigarettes), you’re allowing that opening your heart to God, to good, is more important then what you’ve given up.
I recall a priest once talking about the tradition of going without meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays during Lent. “Going without meat does not mean driving to Twin Oaks for the baked stuffed shrimp!” (Okay, local joke, but you get the point).
Here is an excerpt from Pope Francis’s Lenten message: “Dear brothers and sisters, may this Lenten season find the whole Church ready to bear witness to all those who live in material, moral and spiritual destitution the Gospel message of the merciful love of God our Father, who is ready to embrace everyone in Christ. We can do this to the extent that we imitate Christ who became poor and enriched us by his poverty. Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty. Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.”