By Corrine Winter
As a participant in a faculty-staff project to share brief reflections on daily readings during Lent, I was assigned the readings for Thursday after Ash Wednesday. At first, I looked at the readings for that day and was tempted to feel sorry for myself, to think I had received a dull or perhaps depressing set of readings. They called for obeying commandments, taking up crosses and losing life in order to save it.
Then I began to think about the way I viewed Lent when I was a child. It was a time to choose a penance. Often a teacher at our Catholic school would go around the room and ask each of us to say what we were going to do for Lent. We often seemed to vie with one another as to the difficulty of what we were going to give up. We hardly ever talked about giving in more frequently to younger brothers and sisters or doing the dishes with a smile.
Some years later, a group of us who taught together at a Catholic school, talked about how dreary Lent can often be since it falls in February and March when winter is getting old. The school year can seem to drag on during Lent, while at the same time becoming ever more filled with duties such as grading papers and supervising school activities. Furthermore, sometimes we felt we were crabbier than usual about the ordinary things because we were going without sweets or sometimes without the caffeine we usually depended on to get started each day. We decided we should resolve together to go through Lent with smiles on our faces. No giving up — unless one could say we gave up being crabby.
I don’t recall just how well we did with our resolution; I am sure we all struggled with it. But it seems to me that taking up the crosses we had been given might have been a better way to observe Lent than foregoing treats.
Now I hope no one takes this amiss. I have nothing against choosing to forego something as a Lenten practice, as long as it serves to remind me to devote more time and energy to my fundamental vocation. Choosing another kind of spiritual practice such as reading Scripture or a spiritual book or attending Mass more often may strengthen us for living more fully the lives to which we are called.
That seems to me the conversion to which we are called every day and of which I was reminded in a special way when a member of our St. Ambrose community signed my forehead with ashes and admonished me to “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
The documents of Vatican II describe the lay vocation as a calling to be immersed in the world around us and to spread the Gospel by our way of being there. We are baptized into that vocation, anointed to share in the three-fold office of Christ as priest, prophet and king. Recent popes have urged us to renew our commitment to evangelization, to spreading the Good News through our words when that is appropriate, but in particular through lives that reflect the Gospel message.
Historically, the Lenten fast has been connected with preparation of catechumens for baptism and for reconciliation of penitents as well as with preparation for the celebration of Easter. In every case, the goal of the fasting is to focus on the covenant relationship with God in Christ and by the Spirit. It is that relationship that gives meaning and direction to our lives. If we choose to fast from something we enjoy, it is to remind ourselves of the one source of real joy.
(Corinne Winter is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)