Yeah, there's not often a lot of "joy" or "celebration" in Lent. Just check out the hymns... whenever we start chanting in Lent, I hear Monty Python's papier-mache God complaining, "It's like those psalms, they're soooo depressing." In years past (and often today) many Christians have chosen to interpret Lent as a season of scourging, of punishing yourself, carrying the woe of humanity's murder of the Christ, etc.
Not me. Ashes notwithstanding.
To me, Lent is a season of reflection, a forty-day period of meditation and self-improvement. I don't think it helps God or anyone for me to wear the (metaphorical) hair shirt for seven weeks. But if you give up something for Lent, there should be an actual reason for it beyond "I'm giving up something for Lent." Otherwise it is a hollow exercise, a public self-flagellation that serves no real purpose.
In fact, in the traditional Ash Wednesday readings, Jesus tells us not to engage in public displays of religious faith, that is only the hypocrites who give alms before an audience and expect applause for their great sacrifices. For that reason alone, Ash Wednesday used to make me a little uncomfortable. It felt like the physical sign of our faith, literally stamped on our foreheads, was an attention grab for our devotion.
In St. Louis, Catholicism is the dominant faith, so no one wonders about the ashes. When I lived in Tennessee, where Baptist churches dominate, I tended to stand out on Ash Wednesday. And frequently someone would say, "You've got something on your forehead, you know."
(My father used to call it "getting your ashes hauled," which makes me snicker inappropriately at the service every year. Thanks, Dad.)
Lent is supposed to be about inner reflection, to make yourself better able to do what it is that you're meant to do in this world. It's not really about punishing yourself. If you choose to deny yourself something, it should be because you believe this thing interferes with your life, holds you back from your calling or is somehow detrimental to your relationships.
For example, if you give up chocolate, it should be because your fondness for chocolate has taken on a disproportionate weight in your life. Sounds silly when you put it on chocolate, doesn't it? Now replace chocolate with too many beers in front of the television at night, huddling on the back porch with a cigarette in your mouth, endlessly ranting and fuming about stupidity on the internet, or any habit/obsession/addiction that draws you away from health, away from your loved ones and denies you the peace that I truly believe God wants for us.
What is it that weighs on your life? I don't mean money problems or work issues, unless you can identify something in you that is causing them. What problems do you have that you know, in your heart of hearts, you are creating for yourself? This is not about condemning or punishing yourself for your natural humanity. It is about finding the crazyman running around in your head screwing up your life and putting him in harness, to paraphrase Stephen King totally out of context.
It can be something simple, like my family's habit of eating fast food too often. It's expensive. It's unhealthy. It happens because we get busy, we are all on staggered schedules and sometimes I fall behind in the planning. But if we can stop for forty days, we might find that we feel healthier and our bank accounts will be better off. It is not denial simply to punish ourselves; it's identifying the source of a physical and financial problem and attempting to solve it.
It would be easy to say I'll give up Facebook for Lent, because I recognize it has a disproportionate weight in my life and it is too easy to get drawn into stupid, nasty discussions that eat up time and emotional energy. But it would be impossible to actually do it, as my presence there is required for my job, necessary for my writing and important to maintain contact with family and friends who are far away. But does it have to have that disproportionate weight? Does everything have to be about Facebook and what this is going to sound like online? Is there not a balance to be found between the positive aspects it brings and the negative weights?
(As a friend of mine once said: "The hardest thing about explaining the future to someone from the past would be, 'In my hand I hold a device that allows me to access the sum total of human knowledge. I use it to start arguments with strangers and look at pictures of cats.'")
I follow the rituals and customs of my faith because in all their traditional and sometimes strange ways, they remind me on a daily or weekly basis of the kind of person I strive to be. A person who leaves the world a better place than she found it. Of course I often fail, because I am human. But the key is not perfection; the key is constantly striving to do better. Lent is part of that.
On Ash Wednesday, I aim to take a look at myself and see a way to improve myself, mentally or physically. A way to improve my life and my family's life, something practical with measurable results, to make me into a better, healthier and happier person - and therefore better able to go about doing the things I'm meant to do in this life. Not an arbitrary self-denial that merely punishes me without actually improving me; something that makes my life or someone else's life better in the end.
The idea, I guess, is that if you can do this one thing for forty days, it should be that much easier to keep doing it.