Easter is coming too early this year. Actually, Easter comes too early every year. And it doesn’t matter when it occurs in the calendar. It’s always too early. You see, it takes me about a week or so to get into the rhythm of Lent. Ash Wednesday always, despite its prominence on the calendar, seems to slip up on me and by the time I get my Lent act together, I’m about a week behind. So when Easter arrives, I’m not ready. My six weeks to a complete make-over, mentally, spiritually and physically is always lacking a few days. Which makes Easter feel, not so much like a celebration, as a failure. If I had just been on top of things, I tell myself, I’d have had a better Lent and consequently a better Easter. And then I eat the ears off a chocolate bunny.
But this year I’m trying a different approach. Oh, Ash Wednesday came too soon, just as it always does. I barely made it to Mass in time for ashes and I completely forgot about the fast and abstinence part although, since I was on my 900th diet of the year, I figured I was pretty much fasting and abstaining anyway.
Leaving the church, I had a sort of Lenten Epiphany. Every year, for as long as I can remember, I have give up something or added some new discipline to my life for Lent. And every year for as long as I can remember, I have failed to carry through with the resolve as perfectly and as flawlessly as I had wanted. Which, I realized, was the reason that I never felt quite ready for Easter. It wasn’t a culmination of a well-kept penitential season; it was simply a signpost on my road of failure. Year after year.
Now if you are the kind of person who manages to keep Lent without a slip-up, please feel free to stop reading. This column is not for you. But if you are like me, not so great at Lent, then maybe my insight might help you a little bit.
What I decided to do this Easter was not to try to force an extra discipline or denial onto my life, but rather to take seriously the second part of the second great commandment: Love your neighbor AS YOURSELF. This Lent, I decided I would “love myself.”
Before you get the idea that means I’ve been eating boxes of chocolate, lolling around in bed and reading fluffy novels in the name of Lent, it doesn’t. What it means is that throughout the day, I stop and ask myself: “What is the most loving thing I can do for myself right now?”
The answer is never “Have another chocolate.” It’s always more along the lines of “Go to exercise class,” or “Fix a salad,” or “Spend some time in prayer.” When I think about truly loving myself, it always points me toward taking better care of my body—the Temple of the Holy Spirit—or of relationships, either with God or with other people. It’s always about improvement, not punishment.
That’s where I think I’ve gone wrong all these years. For whatever reason, I’ve considered Lent a time to punish myself into goodness (or at least better than I have beenness). But anyone who has been a parent knows that you can’t really punish a child into being good. You can temporarily correct a behavior, but lasting change comes from having the child realize that the proper behavior is more beneficial than the improper. Why I thought that fundamental truism would change just because I added more years I don’t know.
What I’ve learned thus far in my new Lenten approach is that by making a concentrated effort to love myself, I’ve actually initiated and carried through with many of the “disciplines” I have failed to impose in the past. I think that’s because when we do what is truly best for ourselves, what is truly the most loving for ourselves, we can never take the easy out.
Let me give you an example. Let’s say you have a bit of a temper and are inclined to snap when people irritate you. Now you could vow that this Lent you are going to control your tongue and not say harsh words. You might even succeed in making it the whole 40 days. But when Lent was over, all you will have accomplished is demonstrating that you can speak nicely for six weeks. If, however, you decided that with regard to your temper, you will do what is the most loving thing for yourself as a child of God, you would soon see that losing your temper doesn’t make you feel better or happier. It probably makes you feel ashamed, like a failure, or even angry with yourself. If, in the moment when you are feeling like shouting, you would simply ask, “What is the most loving thing I can do for myself right now?” you would most likely realize that the most loving thing for you is also the most loving thing for the other person—keeping your mouth shut and handling the situation in a mature manner. And after six weeks of seeing this new behavior as something you truly want, it’s more likely to become a lasting and permanent part of you.
It’s taken me many years to come to this conclusion, but I think maybe I’m finally getting it--Lent isn’t a time to punish ourselves, but a time to let what is best in each of us show forth. It’s a time to help us become our best selves, the selves that were made possible by the Resurrection.
When we work toward becoming who we were created to be, then Easter won’t come too soon; it will come exactly when it should.