There is something precious about a three-year-old presenting his mother with a bouquet of dandelions. No matter that the flowers handed over are a crushed and virtually unrecognizable sweaty clump of weeds. There is a sacred element to the gift as a result, not of its quality, but of the depth of the child’s desire to please. That desire is evident in the exuberant bounce of the step, the excited thrust of the gift into her open palms, the devoted gaze and the joyful anticipation of mother’s reaction as she receives such a loving gesture.
When we think about Lent, doesn’t it seem likely that this is what God desires for us as we approach this sacred season? For our own sakes, He doesn’t want us to approach Lent with a show of indifference, where we give up something like caster oil or spinach and call it good. On the other hand, He isn’t looking for heavy sighs and feigned martyrdom when we consider what we’d like to offer God this year. He doesn’t want us to spend the next 40 days trudging from here to there with gritted teeth, downtrodden expressions, sunken eyes and never-ending groans of agony until Easter morning. That said, He also isn’t looking for us to beat ourselves up because we commit to a mountain of resolutions and then fall short.
He wants the simple but joyful sacrifice of a child. More than anything, He is looking for the genuine desire to give what we have to Our Lord for his pleasure.
Lent is a call for penance, fasting and abstinence. Not for His sake, but for our sake. Just as a grateful and generous child grows in virtue in the very act of giving, Christians develop virtue and grow in holiness when they generously offer penance, fasting and abstinence as loving gestures in order to please God; not merely to fulfill an obligation.
It is no coincidence that Lent falls shortly after we celebrate the greatest gift of all time – the gift of the Incarnation, wherein God condescended to become Man in order to lead us to Himself. What is Christmas but the beautiful celebration wherein Christ offers himself as a gift for all mankind. According to Jean Danielou, S.J. in The Angels and Their Mission,
The true mystery of the Nativity is the self-abasement of the divine Person of the Word, a “little lower than angels” (Hebrews 2:7), p. 41.
Webster’s Dictionary defines self-abasement as “voluntary self-punishment in order to atone for some wrong-doing. Synonyms are “self-mortification, penance.”
From the moment of the incarnation, Christ offered Himself as a sacrifice. Lent, in a very special way, calls us to a new springtime of union with Him. A union wherein we cooperate in His sacrifice by giving of ourselves. Where in all weakness and humility, we try to offer back to the God who has given so much to us. By His example and through His grace, we are able to offer our own self-mortification and penance. During Lent, we are given an opportunity to sacrifice.
What does it mean to sacrifice? Saint Teresa of Calcutta said it best:
“A sacrifice to be real must cost, must hurt, and must empty ourselves.”
These are words we should keep in mind as we approach Lent.
But there is a difference between emptying ourselves, and letting everyone know the cost of the emptying. Lent is about offering gifts to God. As is evident when we gaze upon a crucifix, the greatest gifts often come at the greatest cost. But when we offer ourselves and our gifts in love, we don’t count the cost.
When one loves, one does not calculate – St. Therese of Lisieux
Have you ever received a gift from a reluctant giver? Or from a giver who goes on and on about the cost or challenge in obtaining or sharing the gift? More often than not, most of us would rather that person had kept his gift than that he bemoan the difficulties sustained in its presentation.
Lenten resolutions bemoaned and endured turn us into victims. Resolutions offered in love, no matter the cost, are called sacrifices. Through a willingness to carry our crosses, we unite ourselves to Christ on His Cross. By eagerly giving of ourselves, our offering becomes united to His Offering. Our love is united to His Love. Our sacrifice is united to His Sacrifice.
Imagine the reaction when we run to God with our gifts, no matter how small they may be? Imagine His joy when we thrust them into His wounded palms, His pride at our humble willingness to look like fools for God – that our desire to give far outweighs our desire for perfection. Our desire to look good. Our desire to win.
Whatever you offer to God this Lent, may you present it with all the awkward generosity, sincere devotion and loving desire of a child.
Artwork: from The Fountain: with Jets of New Meaning, 1870