Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of the Christian season of Lent (in Spanish, Cuaresma), the season of penitence and preparation leading up to Easter.
The 40* days (thus the word, cuaresma in Spanish, cuarenta meaning forty) are symbolic of the story of Jesus, after being baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan river, being sent out (literally driven out) into the wilderness where, according to the story in Mark 1, he was tempted by Satan and with the wild beasts.
Traditionally Lent has been a time where followers of Jesus ‘give up’ something in order to identify with Jesus’ time fasting in the wilderness.
Some people argue that giving up something (such as chocolate or sweets), if it really is just for the motive of going on a diet or losing weight, does not really ‘count.’ The point, they say, is to do something sacrificial, for which you don’t receive a ‘reward.’ Of course there is truth in this, but if you manage to go 40 days (which is really 45 with the Sundays included) without eating sugar or chocolate or alcohol, is pretty sacrificial, at least to your tasted buds!
But what if, rather than seeing Lent as a time to add another item to our list of things to do (or not do), we were to see it as a time of intentionality, of preparation, and of emptying ourselves? What if it were a time to be mindful–of how we spend our time, our money, and of what we consume, both into our bodies as well as with our credit cards? Would this ‘count’ as a Lenten practice?
I’ve never really tried to whole-heartedly embrace Lent. Sure, I’ve flirted with giving up chocolate or sweets as a teenager, have tried ‘adding something good (like service to others)’ instead of giving something up (I didn’t really follow through on that one), and have even had a Lenten practice of going around the world (I’m not sure how that fits with Jesus fasting in the wilderness).
But this year I’m going to try it. I’m going to try to be present, to be mindful, and to seek ways of making space (emptying?) in my life to pay attention. We’ll see where it leads.
*The number 40 is also significant in the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians often call the Old Testament) as the number of days Moses spent on top of Mt. Sinai receiving the 10 commandments, the number of days of rain for Noah’s ark, the number of years the people of Israel wandered in the desert before reaching the promised land.