By Father Joseph Breighner
One of my favorite Lenten stories is the story of the little boy who came home from the Ash Wednesday Mass. He said to his mother: “Mom, there’s somebody under my bed!”
His mother replied: “What are you talking about?” The little boy answered: “Well, at church today I heard Father say: ‘Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.’ So there’s somebody under my bed, and I can’t tell if they’re coming or going.”
It’s true that our bodies do indeed return to ashes, to dust. But we don’t. We go to God.
And that is the purpose of Lent – to remind us of who we really are. One day our bodies will indeed return to dust. One day we will all lose our minds. But who we really are lasts forever. We are spirit. Our deepest identity is that we are created in the divine image – in the image and likeness of God. We never lose that identity. We can only forget it.
Lent is not a time to make ourselves miserable. Lent is a time to become aware again of who we are.
Too often, I think, our Lenten penances make us more self-conscious than self-aware. We hear people say things such as, “I didn’t eat chocolate for all of Lent,” or “I didn’t drink coffee all of Lent,” or “I didn’t watch television for all of Lent.” However praiseworthy any of these practices may be, the danger is that they pull us back into our egos – our mind-body identity of self – instead of making us more aware of the divine within us. Notice, each sentence was about what “I” did. The purpose of Lent is to free us from the identifying with our egos, and, instead, to allow God to transform us. We strive to become what St. Paul said so eloquently: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
Put simply, our Christian lives are not about what “I” do for God. It’s not about my ego. The heart of the Christian life is what I allow God to do through me. There’s a huge difference between my ego claiming credit for what “I” did, as opposed to saying: “Look what I allowed God to do through me.” The magic word is “allow.” When we get our egos out of the way, God can indeed work miracles through each of us.
That’s what Jesus was trying to tell us in Matthew’s Gospel that we read on Ash Wednesday. When we give alms, we shouldn’t blow a trumpet and say, “Look what I did.” “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” Christ commands.
When we pray, we shouldn’t do it in ways that draw attention to ourselves. We should pray in our “inner rooms” our “secret places”, and the “Father who sees in secret will repay you.”
“When you fast don’t look gloomy like the hypocrites so that others may see you are fasting,” Christ says. “They have received their reward.”
Jesus was well aware of our ego’s efforts to co-opt our spirits. The world tells us to show off our minds and our bodies. Jesus is telling us to allow God to work through us, so that the glory goes to the spirit, to God, and not to us.
The purpose of Lent, then, is not to become more self-aware. The purpose of Lent is to become more God aware. It is not about me – the little ego. It is about God. We drop our egos, and allow God to do great things through us. God gets the glory, and we grow daily in our consciousness of God, grow daily in our consciousness of the divine image in which we were created. That’s the purpose of Lent.