So Catholics have a pretty strange year going on. By now all even vaguely practicing Catholics are aware that Ash Wednesday is also St. Valentine’s Day. But do you know when Easter is? No? April 1st. Which is actually totally appropriate. Caught on yet?
April Fool!! Not really dead!
I think Jesus would have gotten a kick out of that. But as appropriate as Easter is, I also think Ash Wednesday is on point this year. After all, Valentine’s Day is a day about celebrating love. Discarding all the ridiculous commercialism, that is the point of it. And for Catholics, that is also what Ash Wednesday is. Now why do I say that?
Ash Wednesday is the start of Lent, a time during which the Church starts preparing for Easter. And what we’re getting ready for is receiving the ultimate gift of love that any of us has ever been given. Jesus died for us. And it wasn’t easy. Jesus didn’t just die, he died horribly. If you have a nail anywhere nearby, look at it. Pick it up. The bigger the better. Now imagine pushing it through your hands and feet. Or even your wrists and ankles. Sound pleasant? Nope. And the nails used on Jesus were way bigger. And the circumstances were way worse. Here’s what we don’t think about enough: Jesus knew exactly what was coming. And He could have stopped it. He even begged God to not need Him to do this. He was not just scared, but terrified. As any of us would be. But whereas most of us would probably do anything to get out of it, Jesus in the end said that famous line, “not my will, but Your will.” He said that because of His tremendous love of God and us. It is only the most overwhelming love that would compel any of us give so much of ourselves. But in some ways being on the receiving end of such a gift can seem just as hard.
The Christian Liturgical Cycle, which starts every year with Advent, is set up to help us, and really call us, to better ourselves in response to this gift. The sacrifices that are part of the season of Lent help us to have a personal resurrection of ourselves. And as we change, hopefully for the better, we are more open to further sacrifice and bettering. It is a never-ending cycle.
The best way to learn where to start is to simply read what Jesus had to say about the matter. And what He said was, “Follow Me.” (Spoiler alert!) He said this a lot. He said it to Peter when He told him to leave his boat and nets. He said it in response to several people, with similar messages. Leave everything, give away your stuff, ditch your family, etc., and just follow Me. Now, we are not necessarily called to go to such extreme lengths, but we are called to follow Him all the time. Lent is a great start, but our Christian calling is to act in a loving way all year long, not just 40 days.
Part of this following, however, is forgiving. In some ways harder to do than deeds. But Jesus was very clear on this. Mt 18: 21-22 has Jesus being asked how many times we are required to forgive someone who has wronged us. Some translations say 77 times, I grew up with 70 times 7 times. The truth is, it doesn’t matter. The intention was not that we keep a running total and when we get to the end, say, “Aha, that’s it! You’ve reached your last pass. We’re done, I don’t need to forgive you anymore. Never talk to me again!”
While we may feel that way, that is not what Jesus meant. The point was that there should be no limit to our forgiveness. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Or that it can always be instantaneous. But what we are called to do is never shut the door on forgiveness. It may take days, weeks, or even years, but we have to at least keep trying and striving toward it. He talks about it again in Mt 5: 23-24. This time, He says that if you are going to make an offering to God, but remember you have offended someone, you need to leave the offering there and go and ask forgiveness first before continuing. That seems pretty serious to me. So we must not only forgive others, but be humble enough to seek forgiveness ourselves, recognize our own faults.
The thing is, that unless we take the time and effort during Lent to make sacrifices and be of service, we will never be able to experience the rebirth that can be ours. But not all sacrifices are equal. One of the things that the Church requires of Lent is to give up meat on Fridays. Now, I’m a meat eater. I love a good steak, chicken, all of it. So Fridays in Lent are hard for me. Especially this year, as my birthday falls on a Friday in Lent, and my mother usually makes me lemon chicken (yum!). Now some would say, well I think you get a pass because it’s your birthday. Much like a dispensation when St. Patrick’s Day is on a Friday and we want our corned beef. But here’s the thing: If we are confronted with a situation in which the sacrifice would be felt especially keenly, and we say, “Weeeell, maybe just this once I’ll cheat,” is it really a sacrifice anymore? Is there a point? If we balk at the first test, why do it in the first place. (Although I must admit to taking the dispensation last year. I ate the corned beef. I am human, and weak.) However, for those Catholics who are vegetarian, when the church says they can’t eat meat on Fridays the response is, No problem!
My point is this: No one action is going to have the same impact for everyone. We all need to choose a sacrifice (or more than one) that will better us as people. Because what sacrifices really do is take us outside ourselves. We put a lid on our own wants and desires, what’s easy for us, and leave our comfort zone. Sacrifices by definition must be at least a little difficult. So maybe we start focusing on the needs of others instead of our own. Unless we also say not my will, but Yours, we will never experience the incredible rebirth that is waiting for us.
And unless we die to self and experience this rebirth, we will never be able to go out into the world as the Apostles did at Pentecost. Now, they had some help in the form of tongues of flame and the gift of tongues. As much as we receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit at Confirmation, those aren’t usually involved. So we need to do things that boost our own confidence in ourselves and our message. And the more we sacrifice of ourselves, the more we will be able to worry about serving others the way we are called to.
Your personal resurrection, your rebirth, is in your own hands, as is mine. Hopefully these ramblings have given you food for thought as we all go through Lent. And hopefully, this Valentine’s Day was a celebration of the love we give back in return for the love God gives us.
(And forgive all the back and forth of tenses. It is what Jesus would have wanted, after all.)