For those of you who don't know, today is Ash Wednesday and the start of the Lenten season of the liturgical calendar. While the practice has it roots in Catholicism, I'd suggest that the idea is somewhat older than that, going back to at least as far as the Jewish festival Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. I'd like to suggest that Ash Wednesday and the period of Lent, in which we are to nominate something to give up can be a valuable spiritual discipline no matter what Christian (or indeed, other religious) tradition you hail from.
My first thought is that Ash Wednesday can be seen as the polar opposite as New Year's Eve. While the idea of New Year's Eve seems to be to celebrate in drunken revelry, Ash Wednesday requires us to reflect sombrely. Furthermore, while the idea of New Year's Eve seems to be to forget the past and make a fresh start, we are meant to look back at the past year on Ash Wednesday and remember how we may have acted more appropriately.
I'm sure that there are a lot of misapprehensions and confusion about Lent, so I've thought that maybe the following tips would help:
(1) Don't see Lent as a ritual - Don't take part in Lent because you believe this makes you a good Christian or because you believe this you are obligated to do so - indeed, if this is your motivation, your experience will probably end up being counterproductive. Take part in Lent because of the opportunity that it will give you to grow spiritually and draw closer to God.
(2) Draw clear boundaries - decide on clear parameters about what you are giving up beforehand. This may sound legalistic, but drawing clear boundaries beforehand helps you to avoid making legalistic loopholes later on. This might sound silly, but for instance, does giving up chocolate mean giving up chocolate milkshakes and mochas? Is Sunday going to be a Feast Day (when you break Lent to celebrate Christ's resurrection), or is it business as normal?
(3) Reflect on the meaning behind the sacrifice, rather than the sacrifice itself - Lent is not about giving up something for the sake of giving it up. There are many ideas behind sacrifice, but I can think of two off the top of my head. Firstly, sacrificing something that is valuable to us allows us to appreciate God's provision all the more. That is, it helps us to avoid taking our many blessings from God for granted. Secondly, sacrificing something should turn about attention to the ultimate sacrifice made by Jesus himself.
(4) Spend (extra) time with God as well as giving something up - Try to use Lent as a period of prayer, sabbath and Bible reading at the same time you give something up. In particular, if you are giving up something that involves the expenditure of time, think about using the time that otherwise would have been spent on this activity to spend with God instead.
(5) Give the fruits of your sacrifice away - I've saved money in the past during Lent by sacrificing something that cost money. This didn't end up seeming like a sacrifice at all because I'd profitted financially from the experience. To avoid this and to help you appreciate how a small sacrifice from you can really help others, think about giving the money you would have spent on that sacrificed item away.
Well there are a few of my thoughts, for what it is worth. If anyone has any other helpful tips, please share them with us.