I was covering a basketball game a week ago Wednesday and, while talking to a spectator, noticed he kept glancing at my forehead. Then I realized there were faint traces of the ashes I had receive early that morning still lingering there. It was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent.
The encounter reminded me of an incident that happened soon after Megan and I were married. It was long before I converted to Catholicism, and I was not aware of many of the beliefs and traditions of what was to someday be my faith. We were living in Marquette, Michigan at the time, which is an area heavy with Catholics of Finnish and Italian descent. We were at the supermarket when I noticed one of my fellow shoppers had a large, black smudge on her forehead.
“Wow,” I thought. “That lady has dirt on her forehead and no one knows how to tell her.”
Then I saw another shopper with the same mark. And another and another.
Finally, I turned to Megan and muttered, “Either I’m having some weird hallucination, or there are a lot of people in here with dirt on their heads,” I said.
“Those are ashes,” she said. “It’s Ash Wednesday.”
I’m a Roman Catholic myself, now, and lent has become a special time for me and for members of my church family. But, whether or not you are a part of a religion that recognizes the season of lent, it remains a time that can--and should--produce a sense of change in every heart.
The word “lent” simply means spring, and derives from the Germanic root for “long,” because, in spring, the days begin to visibly lengthen. We receive ashes (which are made from palms used during the previous year’s Palm Sunday) to remind us that it is a time for repentance and humility, as in the scriptural phrase: "Remember, Man is dust, and unto dust you shall return." Lent is a time when we should remember and anticipate the sacrifice Jesus made for all of us, while we prepare for the great joy we feel at his resurrection at Easter.
It has long been a custom to “give something up” for lent, whether it be a favorite food or television show or something else that’s important to the person who does it. It is thought that those small sacrifices can bring better awareness of the big one Jesus made for us.
So you quit eating chocolate bon-bons for 40 days, then hit that Easter basket like there’s no tomorrow. Temporarily giving up something is fine. Heck, you might even lose some of those winter pounds. But Lent means more than a few weeks without chocolate or some other favorite thing. Remember, Lent means spring, and spring is a time of great change and renewal. That’s why it’s important to spend these days trying for some permanent, significant change for the better in our lives.
No one can tell us what that “thing” is that needs to change. I, for one, can think of plenty of ways I could be a better husband, father and person. The deepest meaning and purpose of Lent is to joyfully embark upon a journey of personal conversion. It is a time for us to examine our attitudes, our habits and the priorities we place on different aspects of our lives. You don’t have to be religious to believe in the value of conversion. You only need to believe in the value of being better.
It is a time for small sacrifices. And great change.
It would be difficult to think of sacrifice without thinking of Schuyler Patch. May God bless him and his family.