Today is Ash Wednesday or "The day Catholics walk around with a black smudge on their foreheads and either feel totally cool about it or slightly embarrassed depending on your age, your locale, your current faith status and a host of other things."
Ash Wednesday is also the beginning of that thing called Lent, a 40-day period of preparation for Catholics as we head toward Easter - the holy day that trumps all holy days.
I'm not gonna dive into my level of comfort with the black smudge and how it has evolved over the years but I do feel the need to make a few observations about this often misunderstood time in the Catholic Church called Lent.
Without going back too much into my personal faith history, suffice it to say I was raised a Polish Catholic and Lent was a big part of my upbringing. Giving something up like candy or fighting with my siblings, not eating meet on Fridays, sitting in quiet with no television or radio during the crucial hours of Good Friday, fasting, and generally trying to be a better "believer" were the norm throughout my childhood.
My early childhood was spent on the South Side of Chicago amongst lots of other Polish Catholics so chatting about what I was "giving up" for Lent was all cool. In my middle school and high school years in Phoenix, the conversation became diluted a bit as my circle of friends grew to include kids with many other faiths and beliefs. In college out in Los Angeles, I still practiced my faith and on occasion donned my "smudge" but my Lenten journey was a much more private one shared with a few close Catholic friends who "got" the whole Lent "thing."
As a young adult in LA working in the entertainment industry and hanging out with all kinds of secular folks who thought Lent was for the birds and for insane, ignorant people, I went through all kinds of doubt, and even went through a pretty hardcore faith foundation shift which I may share at a later date.
But throughout it all, whether I chose to admit it publicly or not, this time of the year called Lent always brought to mind a concept called "sacrifice." My parents would often say things to me like "Jesus gave his life for you, can't you give up chocolate?" or "I know you want to eat meat today but let's try and think about how much Jesus suffered when he was alone in the desert."
I know some of you reading this are rolling your eyes and it all sounds a bit wacky to you. It does to me too. Kind of.
But now that I'm a mama and I have three kids who are looking to ME and my dude to give them a roadmap on how to deal with life, we have chosen to have that framework include a Catholic education which means they will know all about Lent and the black smudge and giving up candy. (By the way, my dude was not brought up Catholic or with any religion whatsoever. His decision to support raising our kids Catholic is worthy of another post altogether.)
Sacrifice is a tough concept these days. When I look around, even in tough economic times, it's hard to see tangible proof that many modern-day kids I know have any real sense of what sacrifice is.
And why should they?
We live in an increasingly secular society where parents often surrender to the daily whims of what their kids want and "need." And I'm guilty of it too. How often when I'm at Target do I give in to buying one "small" thing for my kids because I get caught up in the thought of "They're kids! They're only young once! Why not let them have a little something! It's fun!"
And I'm not saying I'm not allowed to do that. To "spoil" my kids just a little. But I always wonder if I'm indulging them too much. I'm not a fan of indulgence. I have seen plenty of indulged kids in my day. And it's not a pretty sight. Don't ya think?
Our kids are a far cry from my grandmother's "greatest generation" where as the eldest of ten kids in a Polish Catholic family, she dropped out of high school to work during the Great Depression to help feed her family. She never finished her education but she was one of the smartest women I knew - because she knew about life. And what it took to live it. She understood real and hard what it meant to sacrifice for someone else.
So although I can look at Lent and its quirky "rules" as just that - quirky and nonsensical that have no "real" bearing on "real life", I am choosing to embrace the parts of Lent and the Catholic faith that can help introduce words like "sacrifice" to my kids. 'Cause I'm not sure where else they're gonna learn how to make the concept of sacrifice something real and tangible.
So we will use these 40 days to try and not eat candy, and to try and not fight with one another and to maybe actually try and do some good deeds for others, and maybe, just maybe something will stick. Maybe they'll grow up to be human beings who will grasp that life is not all about them and what they want and what they need.
And I don't know what you think about that, but I think more human beings like that in the world is generally a good way to go.