by Rob T:
I heard those words many times growing up as a Catholic, uttered by a priest as he applied ashes to my forehead on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian season of Lent leading up to Easter.
They are words whose truth still resonates with me as a Latter-day Saint.
About the only thing I questioned about the season — due to the prohibition of eating meat on Fridays — was why chicken was considered "poultry" except for Fridays during Lent, when it became "meat" and I could not eat it, because I preferred the taste of it to that of fish — which was okay to eat on Fridays.
But that is obviously trivial. Lent is a beautiful season. Much like Advent leading up to Christmas, Lent, to me, always felt like a season of anticipation. Something is about to happen, God is going to do something incredible, and you need to be prepared.
I believe that anticipatory sense is what drove Christ into the wilderness for forty days before his entry into Jerusalem, and subsequent atonement, crucifixion and resurrection. He knew what He was about to undergo, so the fully human Jesus took time to withdraw and contemplate the gravity of what would be accomplished by God through the fully divine Christ.
During a tweet-flurry on Wednesday in response to Jana Riess' excellent piece on a Mormon perspective of Ash Wednesday (also enjoyed this post by LDS Living that is linked to from Jana's blog), the ever-thoughtful Kristine A expressed this lament:
As can be seen above, I agreed with Kristine A and regretfully admitted that I had cracked those jokes myself in my early years after converting to the LDS Church.
That the ideas of Lent should be in year-round practice is not an incorrect notion. The problem is that this is rarely uttered in the right spirit — it's usually meant a jab at a religious tenet that we as Mormons do not formally share (look at the comments on Riess' post, there's one that's blatantly disrespectful, though there's another that I think captures a good balance). It also violates the principle of being open to and seeking truth wherever it is found and applying it to our lives.
And I don't think any Christian who celebrates Lent would disagree that the season's principles should be a constant effort.
Recently I've made a point to increase my efforts of looking back on my former faith with appreciation — definitely want to make up for spewing those arrogant jokes — and recalling principles that can hold true and help me in my new walk of faith. Lent is rife with these, a few examples:
Repentance can be an overwhelming concept. The process is fertile ground for discouragement, feeling that you'll never overcome a sin or bad habit.
So try it for just 40 days! There's a definite goal, an ending point in sight. See whether you can jettison whatever is vexing your soul for that reasonable duration.
Taking those first step efforts should set in motion what Elder Bruce C. Hafen called "a continual process made possible by the Savior's grace, which He extends both during and 'after all we can do.'"
Next thing you know you're on day 23, and it doesn't feel so overwhelming or discouraging. That's what grace does. We Mormons believe in it. We need to talk about it more. And a short, concentrated period of time to make efforts to overcome sin is a great way to allow it to work.
"But we have to endure to the end!" Yes, yes we do. Interesting thing about endurance: When I ran cross-country in high school, no matter what workout we did on any given day, we'd finish practice with windsprints. This was to increase our endurance. A few top-speed reps of 100 yards made a difference during three-mile races.
Lent is a windsprint. Devotion to God is intensified through sacrifice, prayer and repentance. Bringing these principles into our lives in high-concentration doses will also bring the Spirit into our lives in greater measure, aiding us in our everyday efforts of enduring to the end.
The original event that Lent commemorates, Christ's aforementioned forty days in the wilderness, is a model for a contemplative life of faith. It speaks to the times when we face difficult decisions and dilemmas, and we may withdraw to go to the temple, on a hike, or for a drive — wherever "your closets, and your secret places" (Alma 34:26) are, to ponder and discern what the Lord would have us do.
Finally, the notion of sacrifice. My devout Catholic mother annually gives up chocolate for Lent. Seems a simple thing, but I see it as an opportunity to see how we will deal without something we may consider a comfort or a luxury.
As members of a church that encourages preparation for emergencies, it makes sense to train ourselves to forgo things that would certainly be scarce in a time of trial or economic emergency.
One thing I always had trouble with was coming up with something to give up for Lent. It certainly wasn't for any lack of sin or bad habits in my life — maybe I was too indecisive to narrow it down to just one.
This year is no different, so I'm remembering what the writer of Hebrews (12:1) urged:
Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.We can do so in the form of a forty-day dash, and with patience gauge our fitness for an eternal ultra-marathon.
Rob T is a native of northeast Pennsylvania and a convert to the LDS Church. He works as a copy editor in Salt Lake City, where he lives with his wife and two (soon to be three) sons. Twitter: @RobTmanJr.
Image credit: Royal Griffin (used with permission).