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Ash Wednesday: The Real Point of ‘Giving Something Up’

by David Toner | University of Colorado- Boulder

F Posted in: Sports and Culture, Voices P Posted on: February 22, 2012
Screen shot 2012-02-22 at 8.52.08 AM David Toner

Snow is melting, exams are starting up and millions of Christians are walking around with dirt on their foreheads.  Ash Wednesday is upon us.

For centuries, Christians have celebrated Ash Wednesday by practicing the ritual of inscribing a cross of ashes upon their foreheads.  This holiday signifies the beginning of the Lenten season, which will continue for forty days (not including Sundays) and ends with the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus at Easter.  For Christians this is intended to be a time of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting in imitation of the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert before setting out on his ministry.  This generally takes on the form of abstaining from meat on Fridays and attempting to live a simple life as well as some sort of Lenten promise. These promises range from giving up Facebook to praying more frequently.

Whether you’re a hard-core cradle Catholic or a spiritual newcomer, Lent can be a great opportunity to reinvigorate yourself.   Aided by acts of sacrifice and charity, we hope to love and be loved in new and profound ways.

When searching for a Lenten promise, it may be helpful to actively seek out practices that have the potential to bring you to a more robust spiritual life, greater self-awareness, or increased sense of worth.  These are in contrast to the common temptation to double down on diets, quit pesky habits, or organize the temporal life without any greater purpose.   Vowing to eliminate vices from your life with the intent of becoming more open to love can, however, be a powerful and meaningful experience.

With the wrong motives for quitting a vice, you can quickly end up in the same situation that I found myself in two years ago, when I stopped biting my nails for the sole purpose of eradicating a nasty habit.  The forty days of determination resulted in pristine cuticles and almost no spiritual realization.

I would encourage anyone who is striving for a more meaningful experience to learn from my mistakes and approach Lent from a different perspective.  Rather than arbitrarily, or even selfishly, giving up luxury items, find tangible ways to positively impact those around you and come to a greater sense of your own worth. Call grandma, write a letter to that special someone, commit to engaging in the sacraments, and find silence in your busy life.

Let this be a time of liberation rather than depravation. Allow sacrifice to free you from the yoke of society’s expectations and answer the call to greatness.

Lent does not have to be a throwback to the second grade when your mom forced you to get the vegetarian chili at Souplantation; rather, it can be a beautiful time of reflection, innovation, and growth.  Just as many people see Sundays as an ideal time to relax and affirm the importance of family, faith, and leisure, Lent can be a time of the year when life is slowed down to a pace that allows for introspection and authentic change.  Most importantly, don’t be afraid to fail at your Lenten promise.  Shame will only isolate you from the love that your promise was intended to unite you with.  Try new things, avoid the habits that hold you back, and be open to the surprise that is sacrificial love.

David Toner David Toner is a guest NGJ Contributor and a student at the University of Colorado- Boulder.

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