Lent in the Mall
What if shopping malls treated Lent the same way as Christmas?  

Imagine this scene:  One cold Wednesday morning in February you walk into the mall and all of a sudden you realize it's Lent.  They've turned off the heat, and everyone is bundled up inside.  No music sounds through the speakers.

The display cases are empty.  Gray ash frosts the windows.  The shelves and clothing racks are empty.  There's plenty of merchandise in stock, but you look through a catalogue next to the cash register to choose what you'd like.

The prices are higher to discourage you from buying too much.  But the shopkeeper will make sure that the extra you pay will go directly to charity.

The sales people all wear purple to put you in the spirit of the season. The fast food restaurants serve only salads.  Full service restaurants offer no alcohol.  The doughnut shops are closed. 

You ask in February the same question you ask every September when the Christmas decorations go up:  "Can it be that time of year already?"

The Problem with Lent
OK, OK.  It'll never work.  Christmas, the gift-giving season, urges us to get stuff.  Lent, the introspective season, urges us to do without.  It just doesn't fit the purpose of the shopping mall.

The problem with Lent is that society doesn't get into it the way it gets into Christmas.  Besides, Lent asks for more -- it asks for a change of heart.  And that's hard to do on your own.  

Another problem with Lent is that it ain't what it used to be.  Many of us remember the Lent of those days.  Catholics ate only one full meal a day.  Children gave up candy.  Every parish had stations of the cross on Fridays.  And from noon to three on Good Friday, businesses shut down, families didn't talk to one another, and for some mystical reason no weather forecaster could explain -- the skies always seemed to turn gray.

It was easy to feel guilty in those days.  Catholics were good at it.  Now we don't feel so guilty so much.  Until Lent comes.  Then we feel guilty about not feeling guilty.

America came through the 1980s as a feel-good-about-yourself culture. But our memory of Lent is that it's a feel-bad-about-yourself season.  That's the problem with Lent.    

The Point About Lent
Or is the problem rather with us?  Just what is Lent about anyway?

Lent is about renewal.  And like any dieting program, it may make you feel pain, but it also gives you pride and improves your self-esteem.

There are two different reasons why Lent developed in the history of the church.  One was for those who were joining the church, and the other was for those who were already in.

If you wanted to become a Christian in the fourth century, you spent years in preparation as a catechumen.  You would learn about Christ, and you would change your lifestyle to model it after his teachings.  Then, for sex weeks, you would spend time fasting and praying.  This prepared you spiritually for your baptism at Easter.   At the feast of Jesus' rising from death to new life, you would rise from the waters to new life in Christ.

If you were already a Christian, you probably discovered that the "new you" still had problems with the "old you."  Lent became a time for you to examine your sins and recommit your life to Christ.  At the end of Lent your sins would be forgiven.  Then you could celebrate Easter as a new, improved you.

By the early Middle Ages, most new Christians were babies of old Christians and the catechumenate disappeared.  All that was left of Lent was a season to be sorry for sins.  And that's the Lent that lasted up to Vatican Council II.  Now with the catechumenate restored we see that Lent has a double focus again.  It's time for spiritual preparation for the unbaptized, and spiritual renewal for Christians.

Spiritual renewal can bring pride and self-esteem.  So Lent is not really a "feel-bad" season at all.  It's a season for renewed life.

Making the Most of Lent
Ash Wednesday is easy.  Everybody loves it.  Even people who only come to church Christmas and Easter look forward to Ash Wednesday.  If they feel guilty about going to communion, they feel good about getting ashes.

People actually go public with Ash Wednesday.  Many make sure they're showered and made up before going to church, so the ashes will stay on all day.  For people who are too shy to pray out loud in a restaurant the way they do at home, Ash Wednesday is a welcome relief.  It's culturally acceptable to wear ashes in public.

But if Ash Wednesday is easy, Lent is hard.  How can people who start so strong keep up the momentum for six long weeks?  Six weeks!  Many people can't commit that much time to a diet, a relationship, or even a bowling league!

Here are some ideas for making the most of your Lent:

First, reflect.  Figure out how different you are this Lent from last.  Spend a good amount of time with questions like these:
a)  How do I care for my body?  Do I feed it properly?  Do I exercise?  Do I follow my doctor's advice?  Do I have a doctor?
b)  How do I care for my community?  Who is my community?  My family?  My parish?  My workplace?  What role do I play?  What do people expect of me?  What do I expect of them?  Are these expectations real?
c)  How do I care for my spiritual life?  How often do I pray?  Does prayer enrich me?  Is something not working?  What?  Does my faith make a difference in the way I live?  Can I think of three examples when it did this past year?

Second, set goalsBe reasonable.  Go back to your responses to each group of questions, and pick a single goal for each of them -- a goal you can actually meet in six weeks.

Should we give up on stuff?  the goal is not just to give something up.  The goal is to have a change of heart.  If giving up helps, then do it.  But you may want to do something more.  In choosing what to do for Lent, Let your actions help you meet the goals you set. 

Third, share this with a friend.  Let someone know what you're trying to accomplish this Lent, and be ready to hear what that person is striving for.  Until the shopping malls start decorating for the season, we need other means to remind us how holy these six weeks are.  Let a friend be your shopping mall.  Visit with each other each week.  Then your momentum will last well beyond Ash Wednesday.

Lent is a beautiful season of renewal.  If we celebrate it well, it will help us feel even better than the rest of our feel-good society.

[This article was published in Praying in 1992.]

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