My mother began practicing the art of pysanky when I was a kid. I assume it was so she could do something away from us children. Making something beautiful was just a bonus. Pysanky (the word pysanka comes from the verb pysaty, “to write”, as the designs are not painted on, but written with beeswax) egg decorating is a complex and painstaking process, and I really had no interest in getting anywhere near it in my young parenting years – eggs, hot wax, permanent dye, and small children are one of those combinations that parenting books warn you about. But then one year, my very youngest, very artistic sister came to live with us while she finished up her last year of college. And it just so happened that my small children had, by this time, become sort of grown up children who adored their fashionable and artistic aunt. So, pysanky.
For five years now, ever since I saw my oldest child, in her infancy, marked with an ashen cross on Ash Wednesday, a realization has been dawning: I am surprisingly hesitant to introduce my children to the less rosy parts of the Church’s faith. From the martyrdom experienced by the saints to the magnitude of Jesus’ suffering, I find myself wanting to shy away, to simplify, to sweep under the rug. Some of these difficult realities comprise focal points of the Lenten season that have deterred me from including my children in any sort of Lenten practice until very recently. Indeed, this season has proven a hard one for me to make toddler-friendly. Lent lacks the intoxicating anticipation that Advent holds as we wait for Christmas. It is not a time of joy and exultant “Gloria”s or “Alleluia!”s, which are exclaimed throughout the Christmas and Easter seasons. Instead, we are faced, during Lent, with the desert, where Jesus fasted and overcame temptations, and with the Cross, which he journeyed toward bloodied, bruised, and humiliated. It is a wonderful privilege to introduce children to new concepts and ideas, but it is quite difficult for me to tell my small, round-faced little ones – who love Jesus and his Church with a spontaneous innocence – about these somber, painful things. Further, facing the fact that these dear creatures my husband and I have cooperated with the Lord to bring into being are also sinful beings is a somber, painful reality for me. I realize it anew every Ash Wednesday, and it is all I can do not to cry when I see the ashen crosses on their tiny foreheads.
Ember Days occur four times in the church year, at the beginning of each season. In spring, those days are the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following the first Sunday of Lent. These three days are set apart for fasting, abstinence, and prayer. We know that Ember Days have been observed at least since St. Augustine’s time, and possibly from the time of the Apostles . In fact, the observances may even derive from Jewish tradition in which there were four yearly periods of fasting.
Christ’s inquiry this Lent:
“Do you want to be made well?” John 5:6
As a teenager, I struggled with drug and alcohol addiction.
I went through many rehabilitation programs before finally getting my life together. I recall one time being accepted into a particular treatment program and smoking pot before entering the facility to begin my recovery. When the administrators asked me when was the last time I used drugs or alcohol, I told them I smoked some pot shortly before arriving. They were so disappointed that they strongly considered ejecting me from the program on the spot. It was evident that my sincerity had been questionable.
I use this story to illustrate how I perceive Catholics when Lent rolls around. We do not prepare. It seems that we wait until Ash Wednesday arrives and then scramble and try to figure out what we need to do, or cry bloody murder that the Church requires of us an ecclesiastical fast and abstinence for the day (one meatless meal with the possibility of two small meals). Yet I am always surprised at how many Catholics survive the Ash Wednesday day of penance. The next day everyone is still alive and well, it is truly a miracle of God!
Money Faith Where Your Mouth Is
My theory is that if we were truly living an ascetical theology in our daily spiritual lives, we would not sweat Lent in the slightest. No, rather we would eagerly look forward to the sacred season of penance with gratitude in our hearts for the special infusion of grace that God faithfully provides each year in abundance. Grace is everything! Yes, God always grants us His grace freely, but, during Lent He overwhelms us with a torrent of pure love and mercy. Why do we not avail ourselves of this special time of grace? Why do we complain and become somber every time Ash Wednesday rolls around?
The Deeper Meaning
The reason we cry out when the Church asks us, in the most minimal way, to sacrifice, is because there is something wanting in our spiritual lives, something wanting in our love. There is a clear deficit in our generosity with God. He gives us everything and asks us to be generous with Him. Christ tells us that through prayer and fasting devils can be cast away! We seem to fail to realize the power that we have as Christians when we work together for the good of the mystical body of Christ.
“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” Mt. 3:2
Prayer and fasting, done with humility and in an effort to please God, bring down God’s blessings upon us. It also expiates temporal punishment in this life. Moreover, prayer and fasting engender self-control over our passions. If Catholics were making atonement for their sins and preparing for the next life there would be less evil in the world and many more conversions.
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Rm. 8:18
Every Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and every Friday is Good Friday. When we learn the meaning of this we will treat Lent for what it truly is, good news! It is a time of great opportunity for the Church to grow in holiness. God bless you!