Gina Christian

“Lent is meant to turn us inside out,” said one of my parish priests during his Ash Wednesday homily — and by the end of that day, I felt as if the Lord had gotten a head start on me.

Fasting had left me cranky, my to-do list had doubled, and a few meetings and calls had taken longer than expected. After work, two last-minute errands had further delayed me. Coming out of a store with an armful of groceries, I’d watched helplessly as a fellow shopper backed her sports car right into my front fender. 

Fortunately, she wasn’t hurt, and both vehicles only had a few paint scratches to show for the mishap. But by then, I was tempted to run back into the market to buy some form of chocolate (which I had intended to give up for Lent) and take a pass on the season of penitence.

That wouldn’t have been a first for me, because quite honestly, I’ve always been something of a Lenten lightweight. As a vegetarian, I haven’t felt too deprived by abstaining from meat. If anything, I’ve been rather smug on this point among friends who are committed carnivores: “You accidentally ordered a cheesesteak for lunch on a Friday in Lent? Such a shame. I never have to worry about that myself…”

Perhaps to compensate for the lack of sacrifice in that regard, I’ve occasionally set Lenten goals that were overly ambitious, such as praying all of the liturgical hours while working full-time and going to graduate school. When I inevitably failed, I would become discouraged and then refrain from doing anything out of the ordinary for Lent, just to play it safe.

Even when I have succeeded in sticking with a Lenten discipline, whether it’s renouncing a creature comfort or adopting a new spiritual practice, I’ve all too often focused on self-fulfillment rather than self-emptying. As a result, I’ve found myself heading into Holy Week like Rocky Balboa running up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, pumping my fists in the air and saying, “I did it, Lord! Six weeks of daily rosaries and no candy!”

Clearly, these aren’t the directions in which Lent is intended to lead us. Nor is this time a march of misery, another priest advised me.

He too had struggled with several “grin and bear it” Lents in years past, and he had come to find great joy in the weeks leading to Easter.

And when I asked him what had shifted his perspective, his response surprised me.

“I learned to ask the Lord what he wants of me each Lent,” he said. “I no longer pick and choose which crosses I’ll bear for him.”

We can easily fall into the trap of bargaining with God, he said, consenting to accept certain hardships while flatly refusing to endure others, and all while professing to be practicing Christians who earnestly want to draw closer to God.

But Lent reminds us of the journey we are called to undertake at every moment: that of Christ to Easter, which first passes directly through — not around, beneath or over — the cross.

And for that trek, said the priest, the directions are simple.

“I don’t negotiate,” he said. “I just surrender.”

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Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.