A pep talk from Sirach before Lent begins
A Reflection for Tuesday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time
Find today's readings here.
“When you come to serve the LORD,
stand in justice and fear,
prepare yourself for trials” (Sir 2:1-2).
Today’s first reading from Sirach sounds a lot like a halftime locker room speech. It’s addressed to us, God’s junior varsity team: Prepare yourself for trials. Accept whatever befalls you. In crushing misfortune be patient. There is adversity coming in the second half, but remember your training and persevere.
I take it as no coincidence that the reading comes just before our annual Lenten journey begins. Many of us will wake up tomorrow, fruitlessly checking parish websites for Ash Wednesday service times (it will be hidden in a menu and page you will never find—better to call the parish office, I’m sure) and ask: What should I give up for Lent?
I find this to be a perfectly normal way of proceeding. Which is why I was stopped in my tracks by a recent essay in America: “‘What should I give up for Lent?’ is the wrong question to start with.”
Conversion, like all transformation, involves pain and discomfort.
Joe Laramie, S.J., like an annoyingly right spiritual director, reminds us that we first ought to first ask God for the grace we want from Lent. This involves prayer and self-reflection: Do I want to be less selfish? More disciplined in prayer? More connected with the poor?
The answers to these questions are deeply personal, which is why there is no shortcut, no Buzzfeed quiz or flowchart to tell you what you should give up for Lent. Lent is a time of penance, but more than that it is a time of conversion. When we ask “What should I give up for Lent?” Jesus comes back around and asks us the same thing he asked Bartimeaus: “What do you want me to do for you?”
Conversion, like all transformation, involves pain and discomfort. The weaning off of bad habits, the grief of giving up an unhealthy attachment. “For in fire gold and silver are tested, and worthy people in the crucible of humiliation,” as Sirach says. If I’m honest, I’m often afraid to answer Jesus’ questions, to ask for God’s help in my life, because I’m afraid of that exact pain and discomfort that will likely come.
But in our trepidation, we can take heart Sirach’s words of encouragement: “You who fear the LORD, trust him…has anyone hoped in the LORD and been disappointed?” We would do well to remember that at the end of this Lent and this life, on the other side of penance and conversion, is resurrection.