What Is Lent & Why Do Catholics Do That?
If you were raised in south Louisiana, the question, "did you get your ashes and what are you giving up for Lent?" is not at all strange to you. Nearly a third of the state's population is Catholic, and the majority of that number lives south of Alexandria.
As the oldest of seven children and the first of 20 grandchildren from four daughters, I know well what it means to grow up in the Catholic faith. I am still a practicing Catholic, with emphasis on the word "practicing."
Every year, the jokes begin on Fat Tuesday about what will happen with Catholics on Ash Wednesday. Some of them we even make about ourselves! However, just like you can't group all people of one gender, race, eye color, height, geography, or shoe size together, you can't lump all Catholics together. It's true that there is only one Catholic Catechism, but we are all in different stages of our faith. We are all trying to find our way, and we are all human. It's all about that "practice" thing. In reality, that's what Lent is supposed to do for us: make us grow spiritually and into a deeper relationship with Christ.
If you'd like to know why we go to church on Ash Wednesday, it's because it marks the beginning of a season of repentance and fasting called Lent. The video above is the best way I've seen to explain what Lent is truly about.
We are preparing ourselves for Easter and the Resurrection of Jesus. The 40 days of Lent (although there are 46, counting the Sundays) are based on two separate Biblical accounts: one from the Old Testament when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness for 40 days, and one from the New Testament when Jesus was in the desert for 40 days and was tempted by the devil.
As for the "giving stuff up" part, Lent is about self-sacrifice and doing things that deepen our faith. At least, that's what it is for me. If I give up sugar, I say a prayer (usually a very impassioned one) when I'm craving an Oreo or a big bowl of ice cream. I might pray for my children or a friend I know is suffering or offer up a silent prayer of thanksgiving for something right at that moment. I like sugar a lot. So every time I want something sweet, I'm thinking about God and saying a prayer. It really makes me aware of how present He is, even more than I was already.
I do other very personal things for Lent. I've always believed that a person's spiritual path is their own, and we don't get a gold star from God by bragging about how we went about serving Him or trying to grow in our faith. Believe in Him or don't. That's your business and decision. I only want to promote understanding.