There isn't anything wrong with sackcloth and ashes, or even a measure of fire and brimstone. But this season is intended to be a time of preparation.
Lent. For Catholics, it may feel the way tax time does for accountants. There are bad habits to stop, good habits to acquire, and longer to-do lists for the spiritual life. In short, more things crammed into less time. But what does this 40 day marathon of activity produce in us? When I catch my breath long enough to actually think about it, I'm not sure. Missions, adoration, reconciliation, Masses, Bible studies, rosaries, Stations of the Cross, Christian service, fasting: all of these are helpful to those who want to deepen their faith at any time of year. But there is a point at which the things we do for Lent can interfere with how we actually live Lent.
Think of it this way. When you're organizing a party, family or holiday celebration, it's easy to get caught up in the details. You want everything just right, just as you imagined, or always hoped it would be. But by the time the day comes, focusing on the real event may be more difficult that you ever thought it could be.
In C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, the White Witch used her considerable powers of evil to make it always winter and never Christmas. But here, on this side of the wardrobe, I think that far too many Christians live our faith in a way that looks like it's always Lent and never Easter. That's because somewhere along the line, we've forgotten that the main event of Lent isn't Lent at all. All our observances and the sacrifices we make are supposed to lead us to the empty tomb and the Risen Jesus who lives beyond the sorrowful mysteries and the stations of his holy cross.
There isn't anything wrong with sackcloth and ashes, or even a measure of fire and brimstone. But this season is intended to be a time of preparation. The Lenten journey is not an exercise of going in circles; it actually leads to a destination. If we develop a stubborn preference for the desert over the garden, or take more inspiration from our years of exile than we do from dwelling in the Promised Land, we may have fallen out of sync with the mind and heart of God. We should, at least, consider that possibility.
This year, I'm going to try to keep my eyes fixed more on the whys of Christ's Passion than on the whats. I'm going to look at the suffering of our crucified Lord and see the salvation that flows from it. I'm going to listen to the last words of Jesus spoken from the cross and hear the promise of paradise he gives to all good thieves like me. I won't shrink from Good Friday's three hours of darkness, but I will be sure to awaken early to witness the dawn of that most powerful first day of the week.
Ash Wednesday may be the beginning of Lent, but it is most certainly not its culmination. Self-denial and self-sacrifice will always be the marks of Jesus' true disciples. But I am convinced that there is a way to fast without forgetting the feast; to give without losing all one has received; to ask God for grace without denying the blessings he has showered on us. That is the kind of Lent I want to experience. That is the kind of Lent our world might find intriguing, perhaps just intriguing enough to follow the Via Dolorosa for at least a few steps.
JAYMIE STUART WOLFE IS A WIFE AND MOTHER OF EIGHT CHILDREN, AND A DISCIPLE OF THE SPIRITUALITY OF ST. FRANCIS DE SALES. SHE IS AN INSPIRATIONAL AUTHOR, SPEAKER, MUSICIAN AND SERVES AS AN ASSOCIATE CHILDREN'S EDITOR AT PAULINE BOOKS AND MEDIA.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a Catholic convert, wife, and mother of eight. Inspired by the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales, she is an author, speaker, and musician, and serves as a senior editor at Ave Maria Press. Find Jaymie on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @YouFeedThem.