Suzanne Elizabeth Anderson
The oddest reaction you’ve probably heard at the end of Lent?
“I wish it wouldn’t end.”
I’m not a glutton for punishment. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy the pleasures of life.
But, in mid-March, I found myself feeling curiously sad when I considered that there were only two weeks left before the end of Lent. For the first time in my life, I actually enjoyed the ‘sacrifices’ I’d made for Lent.
I’d given up my nightly glass of red wine, to drink wine only Friday through Sunday. This created two new habits which I will gladly continue beyond Lent: 1) I’d rather drink less of a better wine, than more of a lesser wine; 2) I’ve become a connoisseur of tea, which has become my new beverage of choice during the week.
I’d also decided to eat only one meal a day during Lent, in part because I wanted to show my spiritual commitment, and because my oncologist recommended that I lose 13 pounds. What I discovered is that fasting is okay. However, if you then decide that this sacrifice is permission to overindulge at dinner (Cake? Well, yes please!) you will not lose 13 pounds (I did lose 7, but cake kept me from my goal). Apart from the cake, I did re-discover my passion for cooking healthy meals.
One recent morning, I was sitting in the green tapestry chair by the fireplace, where I have quiet time with God, and as I thought about the positive changes that had resulted from these two ‘sacrifices’, I was sad that it would soon be coming to an end.
And then I realized that these good things didn’t have to end. Like my habit of morning devotions, which came from Lent the year before, the changes that I made during this Lent could continue through the rest of the year.
This insight gave me a fresh perspective about the meaning of Lent.
I began Lent imagining that the purpose of my sacrifice was to mimic the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Then, after my wine and food discoveries, I decided that Lent wasn’t about sacrifice, but intention. That what we are called to do during Lent is to make a conscious decision, an intention, to give up something so that we can focus on the life of Jesus Christ.
In fact, I was so sure of this conclusion, that I was going to call this week’s column: The Power of Intention.
Then, this morning I had an epiphany.
Intention reflects my desire to do something. During Lent, I gave up wine or my first two meals of the day. My intention was to do these things to demonstrate my devotion to Jesus during these weeks leading to Easter.
This morning, I considered my Lenten ‘intentions’ from Jesus’ perspective.
On the night of Jesus’ final Passover, before he was arrested, he went to the garden of Gethsemane to pray. He asked his disciples to remain awake nearby while he prayed.
“Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible, the hour might pass from him. ‘Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.’
“Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. ‘Simon,” he said to Peter, “Are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour?’” Matt. 14:35-37
Jesus had asked his disciples to not only be present, but to pay attention.
I believe that while we honor God with our intentions and our sacrifices, what He wants most from us is that we pay attention. For instance, in January, I began reading a New Testament in a Year, and found that not more than 30 minutes afterward I couldn’t tell you what I’d read because I was focused on getting it done quickly.
This past week I gave up, instead reading one chapter each day from the Gospel of St. John. I read slowly and paid attention to what Jesus was saying. Same amount of time was spent, but because I was attentive it was more meaningful.
Here’s what I learned during Lent. Sacrifice without intention is an empty act. Intention gives meaning, but it’s directed at ourselves. When we turn our focus toward God, give Him our attention, our sacrifice, our intentions become part of our pursuit of a deeper relationship with God. We should pour out our hearts in prayer, but also sit quietly and listen expectantly. Each day we can take a moment to look for the small and large ways in which God shows up in our lives.
When we pay attention, it isn’t a sacred date on the calendar but every day which becomes sacred because we have turned our attention to God.
Suzanne Elizabeth Anderson writes a regular religion column for the Summit Daily News and is the author of ten books. Send comments to Suzanne@suzanneelizabeths.com