“Are you Catholic now or something?”
My mom and I were on the phone a Wednesday afternoon four years ago, and she asked about my plans for the evening.
“Going to an Ash Wednesday service at church,” I told her. Admittedly, it was the first time I was going to attend such a service, and I was uneasy about what it would entail. I grew up in a church that wasn’t particularly innovative —there were Christmas productions and VBS and a sinner’s prayer without fail—but I think, at the very least, they wanted to appear modern. I never once sang a hymn—not even “Amazing Grace”—until I was a college student. A college friend of mine attended with me one Sunday while visiting and after service said, “Well, that was trendy.”
In that environment, no mention was ever made of the church calendar.
I knew of Lent only because of Erin and Amethyst, my two Catholic friends. They abstained from chocolate or soda and the like each spring. Occasionally (though not often), I’d see people walking around the grocery store with ashes on their foreheads. But that was that.
During the spring of my freshman year, my community group leader, Sandy, told us she would be fasting during Lent and asked if we’d like to participate. I remember sitting on the floor, leaning against Joelle’s big gray couch, as Sandy explained what this meant to her. I think she was giving up Facebook that year and told us, “Each time I want to sign on, I’ll pray instead. I’ll think about Jesus and try drawing closer to Him.” This was my introduction to fasting: simple and profound.
Don’t we often overcomplicate these things? We make rules about the days and times when it is or isn’t acceptable to indulge, and we can’t sign off social media without changing our profile pictures and publishing a few status updates first. I overcomplicate things by riddling them with “should” and a fear of failure so strong, it’s easier to never even give it a shot. I choose to give up what makes me feel guilty, and I believe the lie that a “successful” fast will earn me more favor with God. I talk myself in and out of things depending on the day, and I’m rarely motivated by the simple and easy and graceful yoke of Christ.
This year, I’m reattempting the fast I started for Lent last spring. I only made it 2 days last year before throwing in the towel, and in the sense of full disclosure, I’m not doing so great this year either. I don’t think it’s because I’ve chosen something particularly difficult, but it is an area of my life where I lack self-discipline, and it’s an area I’ve felt convicted about for a long time.
Richard Foster says that in pursuing a discipline like fasting, “the primary requirement is a longing after God.” That’s what I’m hoping for this Lenten season: a greater and deeper longing after God. I want to miss Him the way I miss Ian when he’s off at daycare: with an ache in my heart and thoughts that quickly return to Him throughout the day.
Truthfully, though, I’m too easily distracted for this. I’m derailed by to-do lists and push notifications and appointments and traffic. I’m caught up going to work or making dinner or playing with Ian. If I’m not careful, my days get away from me, and before long, entire seasons have flown by.
I love paying attention to the church calendar because it necessitates that I stop and ask, “God, what are You up to today? What have You been using this day to teach me, just has You’ve used it in the Church for hundreds of years?”
Lent asks me to consider my own sin, mortality, and need for the Cross, so by nature it’s humbling, quiet, and downright somber. Still, I love this season because it helps me make space in my life for joy. I can’t rejoice on Easter if I haven’t first acknowledged my very real need for the Cross, the ways in which I’m prone to wander, and the fact that without the resurrection, I’m simply lost. But if I don’t ever intentionally pause, life will keep moving, and I’ll mindlessly flip to the next calendar page without once stopping to ask what it all means.
By fasting, I decide to remove excess and distraction to make more room for Jesus. Less than 40 days from now, He will die a very real death and be buried in a very real tomb of my own making, and I don’t want to forget it. Because then…
Then comes the morning, the rejoicing, the astonishing wonder of a risen Man.
I don’t want to miss it. I’m making space.