"And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others."
As a child I never quite understood the meaning of Lent. It was clear in my young mind that it had something to do with brutal sacrifice. How else to explain giving up my beloved sweets for what seemed an immeasurably long period of time.
I did try once or twice to convince my parents that giving up vegetables would be infinitely more useful and that it would save my mother needless cooking, but, mysteriously, they never supported my suggestion.
One year I announced that I had let my best friend borrow my marbles for 40 days. "Why did you give him your marbles?" my father asked, clearly confused. "I didn't," I responded as though speaking to a child, "I lent them to him."
CNS PHOTO | JOE PENNEY, REUTERS
Children leave a church after receiving ashes during Ash Wednesday Mass in Guatemala City last year.
My father then patiently explained that the sacred time had nothing to do with lending things. It was, however, about sacrifice.
Quadragesima as it is known in Latin traditionally marks our preparations for Easter and commemorates the time Jesus spent fasting in the desert. His fast is described in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and it references a wide range of penitential practices that all pay tribute to the intense period of restraint that Christ experienced before he began his ministry.
It would be possible for some to dismiss the sacrifice of the child as paltry and inconsequential in comparison. Similarly, the restraint that some show in foregoing wine, desserts, television or other such past times might well strike us as trite when we weigh it against the scale of Jesus's deprivations, and certainly some treat this sacrifice with something approaching a casual negotiation. ("I never said I was giving up alcohol, just wine.")
It is critical, however, that we remember the importance of the gesture - that the 40 days play a more significant role than we might think. Quite aside from the symbolic act of preparing for Easter, we learn that restraint has consequences.
Though it is not mandated in the Bible, the observance of Lent is deeply connected to our experience of the faith. There is something quite powerful about deliberately restraining from an activity, a food or a habit that we take for granted - and it is impossible to surrender it without reflecting on why it matters.
In a small, but tangible way, sacrifice in Christ's name, however small, compels us to reflect on his mercy. That is no small thing. As Thomas à Kempis once said, "Nothing, how little so ever it be, if it is suffered for God's sake, can pass without merit in the sight of God."
This year, as St. Mary's University College prepares for our Ash Wednesday service on campus, I will try to remember that, in the end, what matters most is the sincerity of the Lenten gesture even while understanding that nothing we give up will ever be comparable to the Paschal sacrifice.
We do well to take Jesus' reminder to heart: not to be hypocritical, not to twist our faces to let others know how much we suffer. Rather, we should give with humility.
As Fulton J. Sheen once wrote, "Show me your hands. Do they have scars from giving? Show me your feet. Are they wounded in service? Show me your heart. Have you left a place for divine love?"
(Dr. Gerry Turcotte is president, St. Mary's University College in Calgary.)