Lent 2014: Giving up, Taking up, Lifting Up

I guess it’s ironic to say “Happy Lent!” when it’s meant to be a season of solemn reflection, but I hope you understand my sentiment.

For Catholics, this is an important liturgical season that invites us to better ourselves and recognize our blessings. In the forty days before Easter, we prepare to receive Christ’s most profound gift to us in three ways: prayers, fasting, and almsgiving. Through these habits, we seek to become more Christ-like, which makes us more ready to accept and appreciate God’s unending mercy and forgiveness, as well as Christ’s death and resurrection.

In asking us to consciously alter our behavior in these ways, the Church calls for us to both identify with and emulate Christ. Though our sacrifices of candy and caffeine are microscopic compared to his suffering, we have the opportunity to deny ourselves those small pleasures and understand what it means to give something up for an unselfish purpose. Additionally, if we choose a vice to give up for the full stretch of Lent, we often find ourselves breaking bad habits and bettering ourselves for the change. None of us is perfect, but purposefully disrupting a habitual cycle of negative behavior—for example, excessive shopping followed by buyer’s remorse—makes us stronger, healthier, and that much more Christ-like in our actions. We are the body of Christ, after all, so taking better care of ourselves means taking better care of our faith and each other.

Acts of charity, of course, also make us more Christ-like in our behavior. For example, I have a tendency to hoard spare change for no real reason (e.g., “Maybe I’ll take it to the bank for cashing eventually, even though it sits on my dresser untouched for months at a time…?”). For me, the simple act of acknowledging that excess and placing it in an Operation Rice Bowl or other charitable vehicle is a moment of reflection and personal improvement. Almsgiving also means sharing food and other necessities with our neighbors in need, so donating to a food pantry or picking up a couple of gift cards for the homeless people you walk by on your commute are easy ways to answer that call, too.

Simple as these things it may be, they’re something—and something always beats nothing.

Prayer, of course, is the way we internalize those changes in behavior and what they can really mean. By following through on those commitments and speaking openly and often about them with God, we are able to reflect on His presence in our life, our mission to serve Him, and the influence that love and faith have on our day-to-day behavior.

If you’re looking for some appropriate Bible study to support that Lenten reflection, I’d suggest starting with Psalm 103. It’s a beautiful psalm focused on the love and forgiveness of God, and how His care for us is vast and without question. Check it out for a kickstarter to your Lenten reflection, if you’re interested.

I’d also encourage you to check out Pope Francis’s Lenten message for this year, which you can find here. You can also see a devotional calendar based on his message here.

The funny thing is that we are called to engage in all three of those practices all year long. But, because we are human and imperfect and we know it (and because the time before Easter is the most critical time for us to understand all that we’ve been given), Lent is a period of accountability and renewed commitment. Think of it in the same spirit as setting deadlines for yourself to accomplish personal goals—though you aim to get it done regardless of the timing, you know you may not follow through if you don’t have something holding you to it.

The short of it is that Lent is a period of purposeful, spiritual reflection and engagement with the Church. We use these forty days to recognize our shortcomings and try to fix them; to better understand and share in Christ’s selfless love for us; and help each other in any way we can. It is an opportunity for us all to act in true Christian form so we may both give and receive all the forgiveness that love has to offer.

And when it’s over, we reach a few pretty awesome perks: loads of sweets, time with family, the ultimate love of Christ, and, hopefully, an improved way of living our lives.

At least until next year, when we’re blessed with a chance to try again.

Lenten Message

Celebrating Valentine’s Day for What it Is

This week is a doozy for my husband and me—both of our birthdays and Valentine’s Day fall in this little stretch of early- to mid-February. Because it’s so packed, it can be tough to balance all the special stuff. In the past, we’ve been tempted to more or less ignore Valentine’s Day. But if I’m honest with myself, I’d be disappointed if we did.

I know a lot of people complain about Valentine’s Day. Friends call it a Hallmark Holiday, or find it depressing if they’re single. And, in a lot of ways, I can see where they’re coming from. The materialism of it is both unfounded and unfortunate. After all, men and women shouldn’t feel boxed into “proving” their love with gifts. And no one should feel excluded just because they don’t have a romantic interest every February 14.

But I like to think of it this way: in an increasingly self-centered culture, what’s the harm in a chance to tell the people around us we love them? To give gifts of one kind or another, or create new memories that make the day special? Though it may seem like an excuse to go through the motions of gift exchanges and fancy dinners, at its heart, Valentine’s Day is much more meaningful as an opportunity to extend an expression of love to the people who are dear to us—whatever that means to each of us.

It’s also a feast day to celebrate a saint, who is ready and able to intercede for us if we ask him. History isn’t exceptionally clear about who St. Valentine (Valentinus in Latin) was, though they do have some clues. He was arrested and martyred in about the year 270 for marrying and otherwise aiding Christians living under Emperor Claudius in Rome. (Traditional stories suggest he attempted to convert the emperor himself to Christianity, which also contributed to his death sentence despite the emperor’s initial affinity for him.) While awaiting his execution, legend says that Valentinus restored the sight of his jailor’s blind daughter. [Source:]

The Church calls St. Valentine the patron of love, happy marriages, lovers, and engaged couples, yes. But did you know he’s also patron of bee keepers, epilepsy, fainting, greetings, plague, travelers, and young people? So Valentine’s Day doesn’t just have to be about romance. You can celebrate by greeting a stranger with kindness, thinking of loved ones who are traveling, praying for the sick, or sending a care package to a college friend or doing something nice for your younger siblings. That’s not too difficult, is it? And there’s nothing Hallmark about that.

There are many kinds of love. Don’t feel like Valentine’s Day is all rose bouquets and jewelry and greeting cards. Be genuine however you like. If you don’t have a spouse or significant other at your side today, don’t hesitate to tell your family you love them. Thank your friends for their presence in your life. Pray for the needy out of the goodness of your heart. And, though it may seem silly and contrived, take a moment to enjoy the frilly examples of love all around you. Love isn’t something to be scoffed at or ignored. Embrace it, let it fill you up, and be generous enough to spread it around.

Happy Valentine’s Day, and God bless!

Love and Beauty