Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period leading up to Easter Sunday. Traditionally, it is a time of fasting, penitence, self-examination and anticipation of the celebration of Easter. (Fun fact: Carnival and Mardi Gras – French for “fat Tuesday” – were traditionally celebrations of excess the day before Lent began and all fun was banned. That’s why we eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday!)
One popular lenten activity is self-denial of some kind. Every year I hear people talking about what they’re giving up for Lent. Usually it has something to do with food: alcohol, chocolate, sweets, soft drinks, what have you. It’s usually something that is considered a minor vice, something unhealthy or slightly naughty. It’s also usually given up with a bit of an ulterior motive: if we give up an unhealthy food that we like, then perhaps we’ll feel good about showing self-control, and lose a few pounds while we’re at it.
One Sunday before Lent a few years ago, the priest at my church back home preached about the practice of giving things up for Lent and how he had observed that it has become more of a popular thing to do rather than any kind of spiritual sacrifice. So he suggested the idea of adding something for Lent! Why not add something to our lives that we have heretofore not done? Something that adds value not only to our lives, but to others’. Perhaps we could volunteer, do a chore that a brother, sister, spouse or parent hates, or even write to someone we haven’t been in touch with for a while and ask how they’re doing.
That idea really struck me as lovely, and that year I started to write letters with a few friends with whom I had lost touch. My letters were answered and have led to some wonderful correspondences. Since then, seeing how such a small effort on my part brought a little sunshine to someone’s life, I have tried to add something like this to my routine each Lent.
I’m not particularly spiritual, and I don’t know if doing this is making me a better person or anything. But it certainly makes me feel better. It feels like a step towards being slightly less selfish, less self-centered. In doing something, no matter how small, for someone else, I try in a tiny way to imitate the vast compassion and love of Christ. But even if a person doesn’t believe in Christ and religion isn’t his or her thing, I think anyone can agree that doing something for someone else feels good and IS good!
Because I’ve had so much fun learning to cook over the last year, I’d like to add a volunteering activity in a soup kitchen to my lenten routine. The idea is that hopefully the habit will stick, and continue to provide fulfilling and enriching experiences long after Lent 2013 is over. Who knows? Maybe I’ll make a new friend, hear a cool story or have my heart touched by some small but beautiful gesture.