And Jonah began to enter into the city a day's journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown. And the people of Nineveh believed God; and they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. Jonah 3:4-5
This Wednesday begins Lent where all Christians, from the greatest to the least, are called to proclaim a fast. It is a time of atonement. A period where we stop, admit our sins, and beg for God's mercy, a mercy which has been promised to us, but which we may not take for granted.
Should not we be mindful of our sins at all times? Yes, but. Knowing our human failings, the Church does not demand a constant hyper-awareness of our sinfulness, nor expect ongoing exceptional sacrifices. Such deeds are noble, but not required. The Church merely asks that we remember Our Lord's suffering on all Fridays, and during this special time of year.
Why is Lent so long? 40 days is a special time period, recurring in the Bible. It rained for 40 days. Jonah gave Ninevah 40 days notice of impending doom. Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert. To sacrifice for one day is easy. To sacrifice for a week, maybe two, is not too difficult. But to sacrifice for 6 1/2 weeks is hard. In fact, after 6 weeks of dedicated sacrificing (no cheating), humans will tend to have developed new habits. If, for example, you opt to take very short showers as a sacrifice, by Easter you will have to remind yourself that a long shower is now permitted. If you give up snacking between meals, you will forget to be hungry at 3 pm. And if you give up cream and sugar in your coffee, after 6 weeks, your taste buds will think coffee is meant to be drunk black.
In other words, you will have successfully detached yourself from those earthly things, which is, after all, the main point of Lent. "Growing closer to God" is merely another way of phrasing "Putting things of the earth behind you."
You can not do too much, nor pray too much, nor sacrifice too much during Lent. Our prayers and sacrifices are to be united with the prayers and sacrifices of Christ. Imagine yourself keeping Jesus company in the desert. Could you eat a bountiful meal while he fasted right next to you? Could you watch Oprah while he prayed?
Obviously, we are limited in what we are capable of doing. But at the same time, we should not behave as though Lent were barely different from any other time of year. Does the 4 year old need to attend the birthday party that the entire preschool class was invited to? Is a drive-through run on that busy night necessary or could everyone make do with PB&J sandwiches eaten en route?
Life does go on and the Church does not expect everyone to become hermits during Lent. But at this time of year, we are called to keep Christ's suffering in the very forefront of our minds. Just as when a loved one goes unexpectedly into the hospital - chest pains, a possible stroke - and the day progresses but the mind turns repeatedly to prayers for his health, hope for his longevity, and a desire for an update of his condition, so, too, should our Lenten thoughts be ever "distracted" by Christ, His Passion, and our unworthiness.
If the only time of day you think about suffering is after dinner when you wish you could have some dessert, you are missing out on the great Lenten opportunity. The chief means by which we satisfy God for the temporal punishment due to sin are: Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving, all spiritual and corporal works of mercy, and the patient suffering of the ills of life. (Baltimore Catechism Q.221) This is the time of year when we focus on our souls, on eternity, and on what really matters in this life. Our small penances, such petty gifts when compared to the magnanimity of God, are the least we can do in humble gratitude.