In my youth, giving something up for Lent meant you didn’t have it from Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday. When one of my sisters came home from college, she revealed a secret: you can have the things you gave up for Lent on Sundays. She claimed it was a “mini-Easter.” At the time, though, it seemed like cheating and an excuse for people who couldn’t handle giving something up for the entirety of Lent. I didn’t need a cheat day, I reasoned, I was strong enough to last all of Lent.
Over the past few years, I have come to realize the wisdom in allowing Sunday to be a relaxed day in the midst of a penitential season. There is a particular wisdom found when I remember my own temperament.
I like a good challenge. Tell me I can’t do something and I will probably try to do that thing (if I care enough). I’m stubborn and prideful to a fault. So when I tell myself that I can go without coffee for the entirety of Lent, I start to feel a little smug. It sounds challenging and I can already feel a sense of pride within myself. Of course, it is a sacrifice for the Lord and yet I am quick to make it about what I can do.
However, if I acknowledge that I will go six days without coffee and then break that fast on Sunday, it is hard to get overly prideful about that. Really? That’s it? Six days? And I find myself almost convincing myself to “be strong” and go through all of Lent without it.
The purpose of Lent, though, is not to build up my ego and pat myself on the back for all of the difficult things I did. Hopefully, Lent is a time of challenging ourselves and saying no to our own habits and desires. Yet if I walk into Mass on Easter Sunday, bursting at the seams that I was able to forego a long list of comforts, I might miss the fact that Jesus is the one saving me.
It isn’t my strength, but my weakness that is on display in Lent. I am not the one powering through sacrifices and prayers, but I am relying on the graces the Lord offers. Of course, part of me wants to prove that I can accept challenges and follow them through perfectly and stubbornly to the end. Yet that is exactly why I need this season of Lent: to show how imperfect I am and to accept my humanity more fully so that I may fully accept His divinity.
If I can come to a deeper awareness of my own littleness and weakness, without strangely also increasing my own ego and pride, by simply drinking coffee on six Sundays over the next six weeks, then I will attempt it.
So here is to a Lent of focusing on the Lord and His mercies. May all of our prayers, fasting, and almsgiving lead us into deeper relationship with the Crucified One.
He must increase, but I must decrease.