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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Smudge Stands for Sacrifice OR A Reflection on Lent

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.



  1. oh girl! either you got your mojo back or your faking it very well... great post!

    i am not catholic, so i don't know much about lent and the smudge, but i get the lesson you laid out for us and think that maybe you catholics aren't as crazy as i originally thought!

    40 days seems like a really long time, so i am not sure i will join in as a show of solidarity. unless maybe it would count if i said i was going to give up smoking (no, i don't smoke).

  2. My 4 year old went to preschool this morning so excited about going to church. He was even more excited when I picked him up three 1/2 hours later because he had his black smudge (and because he got to ride the bus across a busy road).

    We're Catholic and I totally agree with you. Sacrifice is a word that is hard for children these days to understand. Partly because of us I'm sure. And probably because we haven't had to "want" for enough either. Things are definitely different from that era, but we need to remember everything they sacrificed.

    Great post!

  3. I am not Catholic but know about the smudge - many Protestant religions can get a smudge today, too! We are permitted to wipe ours off, though. :)

    I agree all about the sacrifice and as a parent, you teach it however you can. I think teaching sacrifice through faith is a great place to start!

  4. I generally take on a challenge rather than try to give something up. I think one of my better ones I call my three imps:

    Unfortunately, our Ash Wednesday service is in the evening, so I can't walk around with the smudge— especially since I always seem to have one that is more pronounced than anybody else.

  5. Great post! I can't imagine anyone rolling their eyes at you *gasp* trying to set a good, moral example for your children. I'm not Catholic either, but there is something valuable in sacrificing something to remember the Ultimate Sacrifice. Truly.

    Well said.

  6. Episcopal girl here - so I hear you on the smudge thing.

    It does seem quite bizarre to me how anyone could scoff at a tradition and belief that recognizes that we are just a small part of this entire plan.

    Regardless of religion/non religion - I think each and every one of us could use a great big helping of "get over yourself."

    With that being said, I have yet to decide what I'm giving up ;-)

    I may go the CaJoh route with taking something on...

  7. Oh Lee - you've done it again. Thank you for giving me the kick in the pants I needed as I was planning on letting this day slip by with little recognition. You've motivated me. In turn, means my kids will soon be motivated too. No meat today and I'm giving up eating anything after dinner (my weakness)!

  8. Sacrifice is something every person should learn. it is very unfortunate that very few of us has learned the true lesson of sacrifice

  9. well said. very well said. as a catholic who has gone through many faith foundation shifts, i find it interesting that i am right back where i started. well, not exactly, but within the same faith. certainly the thoughts that have gone on behind the scenes of that deserve an entire blog for they are far more complex than i can even grasp at times. but, lent has always been a good time for me to reflect on what i have come to expect to have + receive on a daily basis. and the little bit of sacrifice during those 40 days always goes a long way for me.

  10. ahh, posted before i was finished.

    and i am hoping that it goes even farther for my children.

  11. I think I'm going to give up passing gas for lent.

    That should benefit a lot of people, not just me.

  12. Hopefully all us "supermoms" are trying to raise our children w/ morals, and an appreciation of life etc..regardless of our "religion" or lack there of. Your "dude" seems to have turned out alright so I would guess he was raised w/ morals even w/ out a particular religious influence.

    I think you hit it on the head that we over indulge our children at times. I think if we keep it real and help them learn "sacrifce" and what it means to serve others they will be on the right track!

    What a great post, your children are truly lucky to have you as their supermom!!!

  13. Nicely put. Not only about the "sacrifice" reminder in general but also about the idea that we're raising the next generation to expect a lot more than we ever did and therefore it will do them good to take a step back and look at all they have/the reasons they have it/what they should appreciate about it/what they could stand to do without. And any good parent, no matter their faith, would be one who instills such ideas in their children. Well done, you.

  14. "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."

    I do believe Lent helps with that. You're doing a good thing, even if a lot of people don't understand why you would do it.

    I'm not Catholic, just Christian. And I still want to do the Lent thing because it does remind me that I can sacrifice something, I can focus more, I can TRY. And that's a good thing.

  15. My son is attending an Ash Wednesday Service this evening with a friend. He is really looking forward to it! We are going to work on the 40 days here as well! Great posty!

  16. Not Catholic, but am choosing to participate in Lent because I certainly see the value in sacrifice and focusing on doing more for others. GReat post.

  17. Amen, amen!! This post was touched on such a huge issue with the generation we are raising. Let's face it, our kids have more because we CAN give them more. It's hard to remember to "sacrifice" somewhere in there.

    You are so right on when you talk about the need to teach our kids the meaning of sacrifice. It is so important to pull them out of their "me" world a little to focus on others. Not just for the 40 days of lent...even afterwards.

  18. Lee, this is such a wonderful post. Well written and very thoughtful and so, so true.

    I remember giving up ice cream for Lent. Then, on Easter, we'd have ice cream sundaes for dinner.

  19. Well, I was raised Catholic. I remember giving up meat on Fridays for Lent but I forgot about the smudge. (What were the ashes from anyway? I can't remember!) Part of leaving the Catholic church was the guilt like you describe: "Jesus gave his life for you, can't you give up chocolate?" That kinda thing still bothers me. As a Christian, I still do believe that His sacrifice was important, and it's important for me to follow in His footsteps, but the guilt trip . . . . I dunno!

  20. Lee, we are all too erialy alike! and did I mention my middle name is Lee! Scary! Great Post, you put into words, only how I have ever felt about lent...Thank you! It is so nice to know others a like are out there! Happy Lent!

  21. Very well said! I was bad!
    I'm Lutheran and I went to a skating party instead of church.
    Thanks for coming by my place. I would LOVE to be in a group blog. Way less pressure! Keep me in mind.

  22. Great post Lee. Fellow Catholic here, and my husband and I also struggle with how to teach sacrifice in this age of hyper-materialism.

    One point not related to the kids: my hubby and I don't eat much meat in the first place, so the meat-free Fridays always seemed like such a waste. A long talk with my priest last year and I learned it's about the sacrifice. So I am still expected not to eat meat (as a rule of the faith) but I should give up something on Fridays that does hurt me. My husband gives up coffee, and it is HARD for him. I either give up tea or chocolate. And YES it hurts.

    Good reminder for me though. I complain all the time like I've got it so rough - getting bitchy about no chocolate for one day makes me realize how truly spoiled I am. Humbling lessons are good for me.

  23. Funny. Another Catholic friend blogged about giving up blogging for Lent. And then she did it!


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