Ash Wednesday

Lent is my favorite time of the year. There. I’ve said it.

Lent consists of 40 days leading up to Easter…but, as my OB once said, it’s 40 days in the Biblical sense, meaning “a long time.” Lent is actually quite a bit longer than 40 days if you count Sundays, not to mention the Big Three—Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, together known as “Triduum.” Lent is a time in which we strip the church bare, we scale back the liturgy and tuck the drums in the music closet for a few weeks. We focus on crosses and sin and repentance and giving things up, and of course, on death. And yes, this is absolutely, positively my favorite time of the year.

Now that everybody knows what a complete freak I am, let me tell you why.

I love Lent because it is exempt from the frenzied commercial nonsense of Advent (our other soul-searching season). It is the purest season we celebrate, because it has no secular baggage: no jolly round gift-givers, no magical rodents–just a spiritual journey.

I love Lent because it’s the only time of year when American culture grudgingly, tacitly admits how important the influence of Catholicism remains—an influence I can prove in one clause: McDonald’s Filet-of-Fish deals.

I love Lent because when we blacken our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, the world is gray and barren and bleak…and six and a half weeks later, on Easter, the world is an explosion of color and growth and rebirth.

I love Lent because nothing focuses my mind and resets my priorities better than a fast. During Lent, I choose to deny myself something, and that leaves a hole. And, like watching a tire track in a muddy road fill with water from nowhere, God fills that empty place in me between one breath and the next. It’s nothing earth-shattering…just a cool, quiet presence, easy to overlook under ordinary circumstances…but because I’m fasting, I’m aware.

I love Lent because it is an intense journey toward the centerpiece of Christianity—toward Calvary, a bloody, messy outpouring of self; and beyond Golgotha, the empty tomb.

I love Lent, finally, because it is an opportunity for me to face my own weakness and in so doing, to discover mercy. “Repentance” gets a bad rap, because it’s associated with humiliation. “Repentance” sounds so big, when really most of my sins are of the everyday variety. Small, easily-overlooked…habitual. I love Lent for the opportunity it affords to shake me out of habit. The habit of ingratitude, of blaming others for my bad attitude. The habits of pride and self-centeredness and sarcasm.

No, I’m not a bad person. And if I hurl myself in the dust and ashes and weep poetically for all the world to see, that would be pride of another kind. Instead, over the next “forty” days, I will practice turning back to God in lock-step with millions of other Catholics. I will do it by joining my family in fasting from sweets—yes, just like when I was a kid. I crave sweets all the time, and the absence of them leaves a big hole, so I don’t apologize for a childish fast. I am also fasting from checking blog stats. That, too, sounds stupid, but I recognize in the way I follow them a vanity that craves validation. A nice long fast from seeing how many people think my eloquence is worth reading will be a good spiritual exercise for me.

How will you prepare yourself for the holiest days of the year?