Next Wednesday churches across the globe are sure to be packed with the faithful and the fallen away making the annual trek toward Lent. On Ash Wednesday millions of Christians come forward to have ashes smeared on their foreheads as a sign of their commitment to renounce sin and embrace the Gospel.
It begins a season of penance, prayer and almsgiving; it begins the solemn fast of forty days we call Lent.
For forty days Christians willingly submit to fasting and self-denial in imitation of Jesus’ forty days of fast in the desert. As they enter the desert of Lent, many will attempt to refrain from a vice or two such as smoking, drinking, watching television or eating sweets. Theirs is a faithful effort to take up the cross of self-discipline that has become the hallmark of Lent for many Catholics. Adults and children will turn away from sin this season as they take up a penance of self-denial. Personal pleasures will give way to mini-martyrdom for many who deny what they enjoy most for forty days.
Candy, cigarettes, alcohol, and in these modern times, perhaps even texting will disappear from the daily menu of many committed Catholics as they take up the interior battle with temptation and sin. However, Lent must be more than an occasion to merely to give up vices but an effort of conversion as we try to replace our unseemly vices with virtues. The great churchman and preacher, Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said: "Self-discipline never means giving up anything, for giving up is a loss. Our Lord did not ask us to give up things of the earth, but to exchange them for better things."
Easter Sunday will see many of the faithful unfortunately return to their old vices with some personal pleasure as they take their first puff of the cigarette, sip their first glass of scotch or delight in their first donut after forty days of denial. For Lent to truly be effective those vices need to be replaced with the "better things" that God offers; if they are not then the cross has been carried in vain. Lent calls us to abandon the vices and pleasures we put ahead of God and replace them with the virtues and joy that God offers.
As we prepare to receive ashes on our heads as a sign of conversion and repentance, let us open our hearts to the powerful word of God. May the forty days of Lent be marked by more frequent listening to this word, by more intense prayer, and by an austere and penitential lifestyle. May it serve as an incentive to conversion and to sincere love towards our brothers and sisters, especially those who are poorest and neediest. May we all truly embrace the call to “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”