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Lent: its origin and significance

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As society becomes more modern and progressive, some Christians may wonder if the observance of Lent and Ash Wednesday is outdated and insignificant. Even some Catholics may debate if Lent is relevant to their life. Why go and get ashes smeared on your forehead on Ash Wednesday and look somewhat foolish to your fellow coworkers? Some people may even think it's archaic. The question then becomes, does Lent hold a place in the culture for today?

Understanding the background and significance of Lent and Ash Wednesday is paramount for making an informed decision. The ashes are a reminder that we are here temporarily on earth. God made us from the dust of the earth and our bodies will return to dust when we die. This is not a morbid thought, but it helps to put life into perspective and think not only of the temporary, but the eternal.

While there is some debate as to its exact origins, it is generally accepted that Lent originated in the fourth century and developed into a 40 day period that starts with Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Thursday in the Catholic liturgical calendar. Why 40? The number 40 represents Jesus’ 40 day fast in the wilderness, the Jews 40 years of wandering in the desert and other important biblical events. But what does that have to do with us?

Traditionally, Lent is a time of repentance and giving up something you like. I have a funny story about that. Growing up Italian, I went to Catholic school and was taught by nuns. I was a shy little girl, and I’ll never forget this day in Lent when the teacher had called on me to answer a question. I broke out in tears and wouldn’t stop. They took me out in the hall, but I continued weeping. They didn’t know what to do. Finally a nun had a brilliant idea. She brought out a huge box of delicious looking chocolate delicacies. My eyes grew wide and I stopped crying, but I didn’t take one. The nun asked me why and I told her I had given up chocolate for Lent. She coaxed me into taking one, and I’ve felt guilty ever since. (Not really, only when I eat the whole box!)

But is Lent just a big guilt trip? Absolutely not. Giving up something, whether food or not, has many benefits. One, it helps to discipline ourselves when we subtract things from our lives like sweets or TV. It teaches us that we can learn to curb our appetites and/or desires so they don't rule us. Yet the whole purpose is not just discipline, diet or fasting from certain activities. The reason is to redirect our energies towards God: perhaps pray more, read scripture, trust God and worry less. It would also do us some good to contemplate one of the original reasons for Lent, repentance—and turn from our own selfish ways to God.

Helping others and adding activities like giving to those in need is actually the second tenant of Lent. Both help us to refocus our attention on God and others. We can help in many different ways, such as giving of our time, talents and money. We can volunteer at a school, “Big Brothers” or “Big Sisters”, visit the elderly or help a neighbor. I believe this is so necessary in our “me, me, me, me” culture. So why not consider this Lent doing something different than the same old, same old and challenge yourself to give up or give something that will help redirect you back to the true meaning of Lent and spend some time with God.

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