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Get ready, get set

Faithpoint | Wednesday, February 18, 2009

In Brazil Carnaval starts on Saturday, and in New Orleans, the Mardi Gras celebrations began back in January. Here in South Bend most Mardi Gras celebrations will simply begin and end this Tuesday night. OK, sorry if I’ve underestimated your party planning; maybe you’re starting earlier than that, but let’s just say that in the next five days many people will be taking their pre-Lent preparations quite seriously. Maybe you’ll eat up any lingering Valentine’s candy that might still be available; you might indulge in a few extra desserts or snacks or whatever you plan to give up for Lent; perhaps you’ll set the TiVo so you can at least go back later and watch those favorite shows you’ll miss as the screen remains dark.

At least six centuries ago, Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday,” probably originated out of practical purposes. Christians could not take part in the already prevalent pagan festivals and celebrations that fell during Lent, marking the coming of spring in the vernal equinox, so they substituted a pre-Lenten celebration. Further, the list of food items one could not eat during Lent was extensive, and in a world that did not yet include detailed knowledge of food storage or safety, much less controlled refrigeration, it just didn’t make sense to let perishables hang around for six weeks when you couldn’t eat them.

Even the Church participates in this kind of “get it out of your system” feasting before Lent begins. This last Sunday before Lent, often called “Alleluia Sunday,” gives the alleluia the Mardi Gras clean-out-your-cupboard treatment, fitting in extra alleluias whenever possible throughout the Mass. Singing alleluia then becomes off-limits in liturgies from Ash Wednesday to the Easter Vigil, when it will return with the pomp and celebration of a celebrity on the red carpet.

Each of these pre-Lenten customs has become a way we take a deep breath before we dive in to the austerity and solemnity of Lent. Much like dipping your toe in the cold water before taking the actual jump, we seem to need a “Get ready, get set, go!” moment before Ash Wednesday signals the beginning of the season.

Why? Well, on the one hand, Lent can feel like it lasts forever. If, right from the beginning of Lent, we’re wishing for it to be over so that we can get back to our chocolate or our Starbucks, we’ve certainly missed the point. When we abstain from certain foods, or “give something up,” we’ve connected to an ancient and venerable custom dating back as many as 1700 years, but the purpose behind the sacrifice has never been to give something up just to prove that we can manage it for forty short days.

And 40 days is nothing, really. In the grand scheme of things, even over the scope of your life, or of 2009, 40 days is the blink of an eye. Why not look at it in a new way: as a moment to begin? As just enough time to get something started? In the earliest centuries of the Church, only adults who wanted to become Christian participated in the season of Lent as their final preparation for baptism at the Easter Vigil. Later, already-baptized Christians joined in, year after year, as a sign of recognition that the path toward holiness is a life-long adventure, and sometimes a struggle. That’s quite different than a finite, 40-day endurance test, the conclusion of which we anxiously await so that we can say, “Whew! That’s over!” If we’re truly ready to dive in to the season, each Lent could become a step along the road to holiness, to a life for each of us that looks more and more like the life Jesus desires for you and for me.

It’s time to get into the spirit of Lent. Take a deep breath and make your preparations. Clean out the cupboards of your heart and mind and ask God, who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,” to guide you through these 40 wonderful days of opportunity, days in which through prayer and self-discipline and offering you’ll be ready for the new life awaiting at Easter. You just might find yourself saying, “Whew! That was a great start!”

This week’s Faithpoint is written by Kate Barrett. Kate Barrett is the director of the Emmaus program in Campus Ministry. She can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this Faithpoint are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.