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Lent 2014 -- Why does an ancient ritual still have so much power?

The 40 day Christian Olympiad of fasting and good works  is upon us.  March 5th is “Ash Wednesday,” the first day of Lent.

Today will be a day of amazing images across the land. We will see countless citizens rushing through the streets with dark smudges on their foreheads. Some will be dressed in Walmart-wear and others in Vera Wang. Some will sport army surplus and others Armani suits.  Ivy League grads and union workers–with a quiet counter-cultural élan—will all go to work with a grey stain  of soot on  their foreheads.

Popular manifestations of this season of reflection will include Friday night fish dinners in parish halls and local pubs. Conversations about “giving up” alcohol, cigarettes, desserts, etc., will fill the small talk void between the weather and March Madness predictions.

In a world in which so many customs of organized churches are dying out, why does the siren song of Lenten austerity still speak to us and tug at our consciences?

In a world in which so many customs of organized churches are dying out, why does the siren song of Lenten austerity still speak to us and tug at our consciences?

Our daily cycle of work and play thrusts us into the dream of building something that will last: a family name, a business, a scientific breakthrough, a deathless work of art.

Yet, even as we fight for permanence and security, we taste the salty fragility of people and projects daily. We know with visceral certainty that, in an instant, life and fortune can be damaged or lost forever.  

Death smiles from the wings of life’s stage like the opera’s phantom, singing ‘music of the night’ that each of us hears in hours of secretive silence.

If we allow ourselves to wager on a final reckoning, we know that we are not innocent, that we carry some fraction of the world’s guilt on our shoulders.

We know that, given the right time and motive, we are capable of –and indeed guilty of—a thousand compromises or worse. When that clarity dawns, we seek a place to be led out of the “labyrinthine ways” of bad choices, bad acts, and bad attitudes.

Is there a final mercy? Can I have just a sample of it now?

The Abrahamic religions -- forged in the harsh deserts of the Middle East— all call for a sacred time to reflect, pray and, yes, fast. It’s found in Ramadan for the followers of Mohammed. It happens during Yom Kippur for the followers of the Torah. And it finds its purpose during Lent for the followers of Jesus of Nazareth.

Each of these periods of reflection calls for strict fasting. What’s up with that?

The ancient Christians instinctively adopted this approach to acknowledge a primal human need to atone during a season of fasting. At first these were confined to neophytes of the Christian  community. Later, the principles were extended to all adults for a prescribed season of soul-searching and moral rehabilitation. Thus, do we inherit the ancient season of Lent.

The discipline and demands of the season are not as arcane as they may seem. Virtue talk is not cool today.  Yet, we see signs of a hunger for mastery of self, of virtuous living, all around us. It may be a thirty-day diet, or a life-long commitment to Alcoholics Anonymous.

The goal of Lent, of all that “giving up” (or getting out to serve) is profoundly personal: Conversion to a deeper, more spiritually integrated self… standing upright in the light the Divine.

We can be hard on ourselves as a society. Let’s celebrate the fact that we do honor the sacrifices of our military, the demanding regimen of our Olympic contenders, the utter dedication of first responders in our cities. 

We do recognize and celebrate those whose lives of virtuous habits make the world go ‘round. Lent lets all of us join that circle of athletic or ascetic dedication.

So wear that ashen badge with pride today. It means more than we think.

Sister Margaret Carney, O.S.F., S.T.D.,  is president of St. Bonaventure University. She is author of "The First Franciscan Woman: Clare of Assissi and her form of life."