Even if you do not live in an area that celebrates Mardi Gras, most of us have at least heard of it. For some, it is a “bucket list” item to visit New Orleans during Mardi Gras where it is an entire season beginning in January and running through “Fat Tuesday.” Yesterday, the revelry of Mardi Gras faded into the reverence of Lent marked by Ash Wednesday. The gluttony of Fat Tuesday gave way to the fasting of the Lenten season. The seduction of Carnival conceded to the sacrifice of Lent.
Just as the Mardi Gras season is brimming with rituals and symbolism, the Lenten season is as well. On Ash Wednesday, heads that just the day before donned elaborate masks and flamboyant headdresses now bear ashen crosses. Millions of people observe the rituals of their faith by “giving up” something (meat, sugar, chocolate, beer, wine, smoking, etc.).
In so many ways, the things that we choose to give up during Lent – though well-intentioned – miss the mark.
Growing up, our family observed “no meat Fridays.” For us that usually meant frozen fish sticks. In later years, forgoing meat meant fish fries at the local parish church. While frozen fish sticks were a sacrifice in the 70’s, the delicious fresh fish of South Louisiana is anything but. The Gulf of Mexico produces an abundance of fresh, briny seafood – oysters, shrimp, crabs, crawfish. Frankly, in that neck of the woods, it would be a greater suffering to eat meat.
While the tasty crustaceans of family boils aren’t much of a sacrifice for some, they do paint a picture of what Lent is all about. Crabs (and other crustaceans) don’t grow the same way we do. When they outgrow their hard exoskeleton, they literally have to slough it off, often losing parts of themselves (like antennae and legs) along the way. The crabs then grow into a new shell, regenerating parts lost along the way. The process begins on the inside by forming the start of a new shell before stepping out of the old one. The window between one hard shell and another is about a month (roughly the time period of Lent). During this time, the crab’s exoskeleton is soft, and it is vulnerable. They are literally growing into the size of the new shell as it hardens.
This is the calling of Lent. We are called to slough off the hard exoskeleton that encircles our hardened hearts. Like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, our hearts are two sizes too small. Lent is the time to grow them.
“And rend your hearts not your garments, . . .” Joel 2:13
In ancient times, tearing one’s garments was an outward expression of extreme emotion. When Job received the heart-wrenching news of the demise of his children, all ten of them, he immediately tore his garments. The ripping away of one’s tunic was an outward sign of a shredded heart. But God isn’t concerned with the outward signs. He wants our hearts. Leave our tunics in tact as He wants us to tear apart our hearts over sin, hate, intolerance, and injustice.
These 40 days of Lent are for squeezing out of the hard shells that confine our hearts.
“Blessed are the pure in heart; for they shall see God.” Matthew 5:8
Rending one’s heart is about purifying our hearts; seeing the state things of things from God’s perspective. Like crabs are softened and vulnerable for about a month, this time is for making ourselves vulnerable to what grieves God. It is about searching out those areas of our hearts where callousness resides in the place of grace. It is about recognizing those corners of our heart where weakness squeezes out justice.
It’s okay to “give up” during Lent, but Lent is also a time for “taking up.” Take up a quiet time of contemplation and prayer each day instead of filling those sacred spaces with talking heads. Take up random acts of kindness in place of the rote tasks of daily living. Take up a voice for those who have no voice of their own.
Lent is a time to grow from the inside out.
Dear Father, open our eyes to the things that rend Your heart. Let the things that grieve You awaken our hearts creating greater love, compassion, and tolerance for all. Let the stirrings in our hearts reveal themselves in acts of love and charity toward others. Purify our hearts. Guide our actions to reflect your Son’s perfect model that by our actions others will see You. Let your Spirit whisper (and roar where needed) into our hearts so that we can better recognize where we are called to eradicate hate, intolerance, and injustice. Where our hardened hearts are two sizes too small, grow us from the inside out. In the name of your Son, Jesus Christ! Amen!