Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent for many Christians. (In which we read about making our prayers private and then smear oily ashes all over our foreheads where everyone can see them.) I haven't had ashes in years because my kids are not yet old enough to manage the meditative noon service and my husband sings in the choir at the last service, and someone has to actually be in the house while the kids are sleeping. I didn't expect to be able to go this year anyway, since I knew I'd be spending the day at a hospital offering up my patience, my compassion, my arm strength, and my ability to not roll my eyes at hospital staff in service of a client. As it turns out, I received ashes from the hospital chaplain who was visiting the maternity ward, and I go to explain the whole praying in public/ mess of ashes contradiction to a Jewish doctor who was sitting behind the desk while I received the ashes.
The preparations for Lent started before today. On Sunday the children's classes made “Alleluia” banners and then buried them behind the altar. We won't say the celebratory word “Alleluia” again until Easter morning. Tuesday night was the pancake supper, a traditional final gorging before the fasting of Lent. Eggs and butter and other rich foods were forbidden during Lent.
Modern Lenten disciplines are less restrictive. People give up meat or chocolate, take on daily prayer or charity. Some folks take Sundays off. Sundays are Christian feast days, and it's inappropriate to fast on a feast day. This tradition provided a welcome break from the strict fasting of Lent. It may be less necessary with the modern disciplines. There's some controversy over “giving up for Lent.” Should we give up a vice, or is it more important to take on good deeds? Facebook debates about this question can get quite snippy.
I argue that it's a false dichotomy. If we're paying attention to what God wants from us then we're giving up and taking on at the same time. Giving up chocolate for Lent may be a real sacrifice, and so in giving it up someone takes on self-discipline, or a measure of discomfort. Giving up eating out means taking on more awareness about food and how we spend our time. Taking on a prayer practice means giving up some time vegging out in front of the TV or with a favorite book. Taking on charity means giving up time or money we could have spent on ourselves.
I believe that there is no such thing as a selfish prayer, and no such thing as a bad Lenten discipline. The point is not the thing that is being given up or the thing being taken on. The point is the sacrifice. The point is that in the moment when you are resisting the chocolate bar or preparing the lunch for the next day, or sitting in prayer, you are changing your awareness. You are forcing a remembrance of and reflection on your relationship with God.