FATHER RALPH O’DONNELL: Lent an opportunity to follow in Christ’s footsteps
February 18, 2021
By FATHER RALPH O’DONNELL
I don’t know how it was for you growing up, but for me, as a child in grade school, I remember preparing in the days ahead of Ash Wednesday by being instructed to think about what I was going to “give up” for Lent.
The challenge was to think in terms of something I enjoyed that would be a sacrifice to offer up. There were always the big-ticket items like dessert, candy, pop, or even for the particularly daunting … television (screens by today’s standards).
One year that stands out in my memory was my third-grade year when we received a xeroxed sheet with what appeared to be something like a game board. It began with a square for Ash Wednesday and ended with a large square for Easter Sunday. The squares serpentined from start to finish and had small symbols of the season along the way: a cross, a crown of thorns, desert rocks and dried bushes. There was a host and chalice for Holy Thursday, three crosses on Calvary for Good Friday, the tomb on Holy Saturday and a banner over the empty tomb on Easter Sunday.
As I look back on the activity sheet, I remember each day had an assigned activity: an act of charity, penance, sacrifice or service that was intended be done on the assigned day. We were instructed to take the page home and color in the square each day as we had completed the task.
I remember filling in the space at the end of the day, sometimes figuring out with my mom or an older sibling what I could do with the time I had left in the day to cover the required activity. As a child this was a great way to mark the days ahead and keep the spirit of the holy season readily before me. It served to keep me on the path of the Lenten Journey.
Although it might sound simplistic, it seems to me there is real value in such a project for the spiritual life – not only as an eight-year-old, but also as an adult. The days of the Lenten season are offered for us to literally follow in the footsteps of Christ. As he was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, remained there for 40 days and was tempted by Satan (Mk 1:12-13), so too we are asked to enter into a season of prayer and self-discipline in order to take on a deeper appreciation of his instruction to us as disciples. Through acts of kindness shown to our neighbor, we imitate the mercy shown by Christ to us. When we engage in a humble act of self-denial, we become that much more aware of the dynamic in Christ who humbled himself to take on our humanity, suffering and ultimately dying for our salvation.
These activities had, and will continue to have, a desired double effect. On the one hand, when we act on behalf of the Gospel, good is done in real time: The hungry are fed, those otherwise neglected are attended to, and through an act of abstinence we are made that much more aware of our deeper need for God in our lives.
As a third-grader I remember being so proud of having completed all the days’ tasks, the squares shaded now on the page in a multitude of bright colors. Imagine, some 40 years later, the assignment is still in many ways the same.
As we journey through these days of Lent, dear Lord, may our steps taken toward one another in peace, reconciliation, humility and kindness, bring us ever closer to you – the true Brilliance of the Risen One.
Father Ralph O’Donnell is pastor of St. Margaret Mary Parish in Omaha.