It is Lent. For those who grew up in a culture where Lent meant giving up that which you loved the best – sweets, perhaps a favorite cocktail, video games, shopping for your favorite guilty pleasure, or, these days, an electronic toy.
The custom of “giving it up for Lent” dates back to the middle ages when Ash Wednesday would mark the beginning of Lent and a period of sacrifice ending on Easter Sunday. For many, “giving it up for Lent” is only slightly more successful than a new year’s resolution. For others who were not raised with this predominantly Catholic tradition, Lent passes eating no guilt cheeseburgers on Friday with friends who are chomping away on a McFish sandwich. In addition to the sacrifice of choice, in the Catholic church there is to be no meat consumed on Fridays.
Last Sunday, columnist Bill Nemitz wrote an article for the Maine Sunday Telegram about a program at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Rev. Timothy Boggs explained their congregation’s approach to Lent, a “Compassionate Cross.” At St. Alban’s, they are asked to give rather than give up. Right inside the door to the church is a large cross. The cross is covered with colored index cards. On each of the colored cards is the name of a local social service agency. Additionally, there is a wish list for that agency. Perhaps they need office supplies or kitchen equipment, perhaps they need a volunteer for outreach work, or perhaps they need a driver with a car to provide transportation. The colored cards are also presented online.
Trying to visualize the cross with all of the multicolored cards attached made me think of the Christmas tree we had set up at work. Tied to the tree as ornaments were mittens made of construction paper which contained the age and gender of someone with a “most needed” item for Christmas. Employees took the mittens from the tree, purchased the requested items, wrapped them and they were confidentially delivered to neighbors in need. So it is with the cards on the cross.
A contact person in the congregation called every agency they could locate, described their plan and asked them to share their wish list. This is a win-win situation for all involved. Rather than giving up desserts for Lent, this congregation is asked to give of themselves to a community in need. It goes beyond writing a check to a local charity. It asks that they contact the agency, learn about what they do and what they need, and how they can come face to face and form a relationship with agencies and members of their community. All humans crave “belonging.” The Compassionate Cross opens the door to enlarge their definition of community and lend a hand to neighbors and agencies that are less and less able to meet community needs each budget cycle. This is a plan that could easily work regardless of denomination or spiritual ideology. It’s called humanity.
If you feel the need to “step away from the cheesecake” by all means do so. Put down the fork, reach out to your neighbor and make a sacrifice for Lent that really matters. Better yet, make it a part of your lifestyle…
Have any of you seen, or heard of, an alternative to the traditional Lenten sacrifices?