The big question of Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday is on of those church holy days that brings with it a unique air. People wear an extremely visible sign of faith, the symbolic equivalent of a sign on their foreheads. Kids want to rub the ashes off, usually on someone’s light colored clothing. People walk around feeling particularly contemplative as the ashes sink in to their skin. Every unscratched itch is a reminder of… something.

This is the start of Lent. Now is when all those sacrifices people decided to make for Lent begin. From this moment, we can’t have chocolate or soda or whatever it is we decided we were giving up. And with it comes that perennial question:

“What Are YOU Giving Up for Lent?”

That’s what everyone is going to be asking each other after they receive their ashes. We’re all curious about the other’s plans, a fact that I have always found very interesting. After all, what does it matter to anyone else what I’ve given up for Lent?

In fact, it DOES matter to other people what we’re doing for Lent. I’ve talked before elsewhere about corporate prayer – the idea that whenever we pray, we do not pray alone, because we pray as part of the Body of Christ – and I want to bring that idea back to Lent and fasting.

Lent is a season we all participate in together. Unlike any other season, we have outward signs of our spiritual journeys in the form of fasting and abstinence (and sometimes addition). So when we ask each other about our Lenten Rules, what we’re really doing is inviting each other to be participants in our Lenten journeys. It’s not prying to ask what someone is giving up. Instead, it should be treated as an opportunity to share our faith and support each other through this penitential time.

It’s not a competition to see who can do the most or to compare and contrast our separate levels of devotion. This is not a moment or us to be the Pharisee in church saying, “Oh, I’m so glad I’m not like this Publican who’s ONLY giving up soda for Lent. I’m giving up X,Y, AND Z, which is SO much better.”

Instead, this is the time when we ask each other, “What are you going to struggle with and how can I help?”

Unlike prayer, which is a largely private experience, the Lenten Rule is obvious. It is a visible sign to all our brothers and sisters in Christ that we are co-participants in this penitential season. It is a time to help each other and to be helped in our turn. So next time someone asks, “What are you giving up for Lent?” remember that it’s not just the polite thing to do. It’s an invitation to participate in each other’s journey through this penitential season.

Hopefully, it is an invitation that we choose to take.

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