Lent: It's Not About How Much You Suffer, It's About How Deeply You Love
Earlier this week, I had long conversations with family and friends about the irony of Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Christian season of Lent, falling on Valentine's Day. My initial reaction was the Church wanted everyone to really feel that good old Catholic guilt this year. It was like saying, "Remember, love is important, but be mindful of the kind of 'love' you give, lest you not commit a sin, because in death you will be judged for your actions."
According to a friend, this theory seemed to be on the nose when she reflected on this past Sunday's readings. The first reading (LV 13:1-2, 44-46) tells how anyone who has leprosy shall declare themselves "unclean" and not dwell with those who do not have the disease. The Psalm (PS 32:1-2, 5, 11) and second reading (COR 10: 31-11:1) discuss the joy of salvation. The Gospel (MK 1:40-45) tells the story of Jesus curing a leper.
My friend told me the priest's homily focused on how we need to honor the traditions of Lent faithfully so we are not cast out like the leper. We had a long conversation about the motives behind the Church choosing these particular readings the week before Lent. During the conversation it certainly felt like the aspect of suffering is the one the Church wants its followers to be mindful of for the next 40 days.
Today, as I sat in Mass, thinking about this, listening to the priest talk about how we need to repent, fast, and not outwardly show we are fasting or praying so that we may receive our reward in Heaven (MT 6:1-6, 16-18), I thought about St. Valentine (or Saints Valentine, as there may actually be more than one for whom the day is named). During the Mass, there was no mention of today being Valentine's Day. I wondered if St. Valentine is up in Heaven feeling cheated. I wondered if he's saying, "Hey God, this is MY day. You made it my day and now you're putting the doom and gloom of Lent all over it? What's up with that?"
Then I had another thought: I think many of our Catholic leaders are missing the beauty of Valentine's Day falling on Ash Wednesday. They're missing the most obvious connection: Lent is not about suffering; it's about love.
Christians believe that God loved the world so much that God sent Jesus Christ, to earth in human form to love the world and its people to the point that He was willing to die a horrid death for our salvation. This is a point that sadly gets overshadowed in Catholicism: Jesus loved radically. He loved in a way no one had loved the human race before. He changed the very foundation of faith as people knew it because of that love.
It was heavily ingrained in me, as I'm sure it's been rooted in many others, that Lent is a time to remember Jesus' suffering. Therefore the sacrifices we make during this time should be done in ernest. Yet, it's taken me a long time to understand that the things we give up, the behaviors we change during this time, shouldn't just be things that make us feel bad. Nor should they be bad habits that we're looking forward to picking up again come Easter Sunday. During this time, we should be seeking to transform for the better, as Jesus ultimately did, and those transformations should become a part of a lifestyle that radiates the spirit of God, which is the spirit of love.
We are called to be God-like, which means we are called to radically love. Our challenge during this time is to figure out how we can love more deeply. How much can we love ourselves? How much can we love others? How can we reflect that love in our daily lives during these 40 days and throughout the year?
So, no, I don't think St. Valentine is grumbling at God today saying, "Really dude (or dudette)? Really? You can't give me ONE day?" I think he's saying, "Man, I hope people make the connection. I hope they understand that God is love, and today is a great day to remember to love themselves and those around them, and love is the spirit they should carry with them through these next 40 days."
Ideas for Practicing Self Love
* Exercise (I know, I know, but if you're physically healthy, that's more than half the battle to being
healthy in other areas of your life.)
* Eat healthy, balanced meals
* Take care of your mental health (i.e. don't participate in negative self-talk, manage stress, etc.)
* Get proper amounts of sleep
* Develop more healthy social interactions
* Practice forgiveness (for yourself and others)
* Find your happy (Whether it's writing, cooking, or spending time with family and friends, make
time to do more of what brings you joy.)
Ideas for Practicing Love for Others
* Clean out your closet and give clothes in good condition away to a homeless shelter or thrift store
* Volunteer for a cause
* Send postcards to friends just to say hello
* Donate to a charity (if you have the means)
* Pray for others (especially the sick, homeless, and those who are in the most need)
* Practice kindness (Be mindful of the people around you. Say "please" and "thank you." Many people
don't hear those words enough.)
* Be a blessing to someone else (i.e. pay someone a genuine compliment, lift someone up who may
not feel appreciated or cared for, remind someone else of how awesome they are, etc.)