When I was a kid, I had no concept of Lent. My parents didn't go to church, and if Lent was ever mentioned in the Presbyterian Sunday school classes we kids attended, I don't remember it. Easter was king, marked by colossal chocolate bunnies, frilly new dresses, patent leather Mary Janes, and occasionally, shiny purses to match. Lent, well, wasn't that the stuff Mom was always insisting I scoop out of the dryer trap? ("Yes, after every load!")
Now, I actually look forward to the calming and contemplative season of Lent, which is the 40 day period before Easter. I appreciate the deliberateness and thoughtfulness during this period. After the indulgences of Christmas, I'm soothed by the simpler church services of Lent.
Parts of it, though, still confuse me. Take today's Ash Wednesday service. I'm always grateful to attend this mid-day service at my Episcopal church. I'm touched, and somewhat honored, when the priest administers ashes in the shape of the cross, on our foreheads, as a sign of repentance. As I exit the silent church, though, my dilemma begins. To keep the gray smudge on my forehead or to avail myself of the Handi-Wipes safely stashed in the car?
A reverent Christian, I think, would keep the mark, right? Or does that come across as boasting? ("See, I'm a good Christian, I went to church today and it's not even Sunday!) Not wiping off the mark also invites the following remark -- at a minimum, 347 times -- "Hey, you've got something on your forehead." And I can assure you, at some point, a really good friend will try to wipe it off for you. What then? "Hey, keep your fingers off my ashes!"? What's the protocol here?
And what about the tradition of "giving up" something during Lent? If I give up chocolate, does that sufficiently represent self-denial? Or is it actually self-serving, because it might help me lose weight? A few years ago, I gave up caffeine, resulting in the most miserable Lent my family's ever experienced, culminating in me dragging them all to the sunrise service Easter morning, solely so I could sooner race to my neighborhood Starbucks for the venti non-fat, two pump, sugarfree vanilla latte I'd been craving. Which (and this is a true story), I then promptly upturned in the car, requiring hours of cleaning on Easter Sunday. Yep, message received.
This year, my teenaged son is giving up candy, which I'm embarrassed to admit is a significant denial for him. To prepare, he took a Sour Patch Kid sugar plunge last night that is surely affecting his schoolwork today. My job today is to purge his room, removing all evidence of Halloweens, Christmas stockings and Valentines past. As part of the cleansing, incense may be necessary. And an exorcist.
After much deliberation, my daughter is "giving up" arguing with me. Now there's a challenge. This, from the same girl who, last week, declared me unfair and locked herself in her room for 30 minutes because (wait for it) I asked her to take her (freshly washed, dried and folded) clothes to her room. Never mind that the kids have been responsible for putting away their clean clothes ever since they could successfully negotiate the stairs. What was I thinking?
And me? I'm giving up wine, which prompted the following response from my beloved daughter, "Are you giving up all drinking?" My son gallantly leaped to my defense, "Well, she doesn't even drink beer! (uncomfortable pause) Um, do you, Mom?" Beloved daughter, though, was relentless, "She orders those fancy drinks at Zen!"
Busted. I do love those ginger martinis.
And so, the solemn Lenten season begins -- sugar-free, argument-free, alcohol-free. Pray for all of us.