Until recently, I gave little or no attention to Lent. The church I grew up in completely ignored much of the Christian calendar. I had only the vaguest notion that Lent was “some Catholic thing” where they couldn’t eat meat…or something.
I would see people walking around with black smudges on their heads on a particular Wednesday 40 days before Easter and politely let them know they had a smudge there. It turns out that the black smudges were ashes rubbed on worshippers’ foreheads as part of the Ash Wednesday service that marks the start of Lent.
During Lent there is a renewed emphasis on spiritual disciplines—prayer, fasting, and giving to the needy. Many people choose to give up a favourite pleasure or vice for the Lenten season such as candy, soda, alcohol, or even digital addictions like Facebook.
These traditions fly in the face of today’s Western culture of consumption to excess. Everywhere we turn, there are messages that urge us to experience more pleasure, obtain everything we long for, and stimulate our senses to the max
Not only are we bombarded by advertising from corporate giants of the food and retail industries to consume more and more, but even our politicians wring their hands over our economic demise should raging consumer demand slow even a little bit.
We must stop to contemplate what kind of people and society we are—and what kind we want to be.
Furthermore, we must not be afraid to go against what is “normal,” and do what is best for us as human beings. True, the drive to please our senses is natural, but don’t we want to be more than just natural? Any common animal can do as their instinct tells them; humankind has the unique ability to rise above that.
Isn’t there something broken in a life spent feeding desire for pleasure that is never satisfied? Consumer culture would say, “Not satisfied by your computer, house, car, or spouse? Get a new one!” And then the cycle just begins again. We are being manipulated into unhealthy lifestyles (and even an unhealthy planet) by those whose only interest is greed.
A tradition like Lent gives us an annual reminder of our need for some old-fashioned concepts: discipline and balance. We set aside some of the things that threaten to consume our lives to make time for connecting with God. Our faith gives us firm footing for life; it prevents us from being swept away by our passions.
Faith reinforces values of family, community, friendship, and care for the environment—values that are not served by pursuing our selfish desires. I am reminded that the world does not revolve around me by denying myself and giving to others and to God. It turns out that ancient traditions have something to teach us after all.