When I was young, my best friend attended St. Agatha, the local Catholic school. One spring, I remember seeing her after school with smudges on her forehead, as if she had been cleaning out the fireplace. When I leaned in to wipe her face, she jumped back in alarm, clapping her hand over her head. She cheerfully explained that the priest had placed it there so she would “think about death.” She added that she couldn’t eat candy for a few weeks, but on Easter she could eat as much as she wanted.
I was mystified. At this point in my life, I had only ever been to services at a Presbyterian church and a Jewish temple a few times with our next door neighbor. I couldn’t remember either place telling me to give up candy or to think about death. My friend danced around and sang a little song to help clarify her smudged forehead:
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
You’ll rise again, in this we trust.
You’re in our hearts, ’till the end.
We’ll meet again, Jesus my friend.
I was even more perplexed and told her she would get a zit if she didn’t wash her face really well.
I now realize this was an Ash Wednesday ritual. According to the Christian Gospel, Lent lasts for 46 days (Sundays aren’t counted), in commemoration of the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert, during which he endured temptation by Satan. This season is marked by repentance, fasting, and reflection, a time to grieve Jesus’ trials and crucifixion. This year, Lent begins on February 17 and ends on Easter Sunday, April 4.
To cleanse the heart and mind for this period of reflection, those observing Lent often give up some vice or distraction. It’s common to give up coffee, chocolate, alcohol, Netflix, or social media during this time. It is thought that in enduring small sufferings, we find solace and serenity.
I’ve always been drawn to the idea of sacrificing something that gives you immediate pleasure as a way to get really clear on your life. But if Lent is a season for solitude, suffering, and sacrifice of sensual pleasure, then haven’t we been in a Lenten season since it started last March? Hasn’t the pandemic created one long year of prayer and penance?
The tradition of Lent asks us to sacrifice something. Many of us feel as if we’ve sacrificed everything. School. Church. Working with others. Working out with others. Hugging others. Eating with others. Seeing others in real life.
I mean, even Jesus only had to deal with the devil for 40 days. The pandemic is nearing 400 days!
But suffering and sacrifice are baked into this being alive. It’s just part of the package deal we get for being human. Did you know that the word quarantine originates from quadraginta, meaning 40 days? In other words, the words quarantine and Lent are etymological twins.
For years, I had personally been reimagining my “secular Lent season” as another opportunity for a spiritual wellness “cleanse.” But perhaps Lent isn’t about kickstarting our flailing New Year’s resolutions.
Maybe we’re being given an opportunity to really get clear on how we want to exist. I think back to my friend’s song. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It hits harder than ever, calls to mind those 400 lights around the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln memorial. 400 lights for 400,000 lives lost to COVID-19 in the U.S. alone.
This year, Lent should be a time to remember those no longer here. A time to remember that we all die, but that every individual, daily decision we make right now might decide if someone else lives or dies. Through that lens, we no longer grouse about all the small sacrifices we are making. Through that lens, we sacrifice gladly as a way to love our neighbors.