What’s the best question to ask on Ash Wednesday?
What are you giving up for Lent? What are you doing for Lent? Who is your companion and guide for Lent?
Choosing #1 or #2 will likely do more harm than good if you don’t choose #3. Let’s choose St. Paul (2 Corinthians, chapters 11-12) and the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8: 4-15) to plan for a good Lent.
Lent is the time of ascendancy for people known as the “Resolutionaries.” During the first week of January, you see Resolutionaries arriving at fitness centers, lost among the equipment and machines, vaguely aware of the need to get fit, having over Christmas made a resolution that, “This time it’s going to be different!” Gym owners and personal trainers will tell you that most Resolutionaries don’t persist. Their first fervor fades, and their gym memberships languish.
On Ash Wednesday, Resolutionaries make dramatic promises for fasting, penance, almsgiving, etc. They recall the Lenten seasons of past years that disappointed. “This time, it’s going to be different!” And then … it isn’t. Their motivation wanes as the old habits reassert their control. Business-as-usual returns for these poor souls, and their Easter joy tends to be rather muted.
There’s a smaller group, however, a group whose willpower does not flag. Giving up chocolate during Lent means no chocolate during Lent. A Holy Hour every day in Lent means a Holy Hour every day in Lent. Easter arrives, and they’ve a sense of accomplishment—and that’s the problem.
The problem isn’t asceticism or increased times of prayer. The problem is seeing Lent as an opportunity for achievement. How different that is from St. Paul’s wisdom!
Paul speaks not about his will power nor his goodness, but only of his weakness, proclaiming God’s strength revealed through Paul’s weakness. He gives us a key to Luke’s Parable of the Sower as a guide for Lent.
The parable illustrates God’s intention for the seed of his Word to become fruitful in the soil of our souls. Jesus knows that the content and environment of our souls can work against the abundant harvest God deserves. The ground must be cleared of idols and vices; the soil of the soul needs to be protected from the world’s poisons.
Melancholic souls despair reading this parable as Lent begins. “I just can’t do it. God will have to just accept me and my mediocre Lent.” Others look at their Lenten calendars and yell, “Bring it on!”
Paul would offer a correction to both groups. To the first, to those despairing of their own goodness, he says, “Good for you! You’re so close! Give up on yourself—so that you may have the freedom to trust in God! Let all your confidence be in Him!”
To the second group, the self-confident he says, “Not so fast! Any victory worth having belongs to the Lord! Your human strength will bring you a fading crown; your program of self-improvement may become a habit of self-will that leads to self-righteousness—and the self-righteous have no room for a savior.”
The Parable of the Sower shows us that there is work to be done. Neither despair nor presumption is a good start for Lent. The demands of a holy Lent are great; the opportunities are greater. A holy Lent is more likely one to be discerned and planned rather than lived either impulsively or with grim determination. We’re blessed with Lent annually, recalling that we’re sinners who need a Savior. Yes, we must take up our cross, but then we must follow in the footsteps of Jesus, to Calvary, and with His help—and only with His help—we may remain faithful to the end, and so share with Him the victory He has won for us.
Let’s prepare for Lent by imitating St. Paul. Let’s do what needs to be done—but only while confessing our weakness and relying on divine help. Let’s survey the soil of our soul, finding the weeds and rocks blocking the seed of the Word. Then let’s ask God how they are to be removed, and in what order he wants them removed. Let’s look at the environment of our soul, that is, all of what influences us—for good and for ill—and ask God to show us what may be rightly welcomed in our soul and what should be banished. Again, ask him how this is to be done, and in what order.
Lent isn’t an annual reminder of dashed hopes; nor is it an annual opportunity for self-improvement. It is a blessed season, for it gives sinners like us an opportunity, with God’s grace, to become conformed to our Savior.
When I write next, I will offer a series of Lenten meditations. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.