We were no further than the celebration of the Epiphany of the Lord on Jan. 7 when I noticed an announcement in the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart bulletin that the parish was collecting dried palm branches to be burned in preparation for Ash Wednesday.
It struck me that we were just finishing the Christmas season and the start of Lent was a little more than five weeks away. With Ash Wednesday on Feb. 14, Easter will be on March 31 this year.
Dating to my childhood, I have had a practice of placing the fresh palms given to us on Palm Sunday on the crucifixes and holy images that were hanging throughout our house. I have also kept many of the crafted ornaments made from the palms as a reminder of the significance of that day.
It might appear to be a jolt to go so quickly from Christmas to Lent, Palm Sunday and Holy Week, but that transition is an important one. I’m blessed during the Christmas season to receive many gifts, e.g., clothes, books, candy, chocolate and wine. While I enjoyed several nice dinners during Christmas week and into the new year, I also gained a few pounds in the process.
Right after I noticed we were beginning to collect palms, I had this strong urge to clear out all of the stuff I have accumulated. It was as though there was an immediacy to start spring cleaning well before spring.
Part of me was upset that I had gained a few pounds and I urgently wanted to get back to my “fighting weight,” so to speak. I had all these wonderful gifts that I was enjoying, but they were the cause of the pounds — especially the candy, chocolate and wine! I was feeling what many of us might feel: We get to the point where we sense that we have too many material things complicating, even overwhelming, our lives.
At the same time, spiritually we may feel like those palms — withered and dry. We see their brittleness and know that their freshness is gone. There’s no alternative for those palms other than to have them burned into ashes that are used to remind us of our own weakness and frailty, and of the need we have for renewal.
The abundance of Christmas and the dry, shriveled, used up palms are related, connected in the continually flowing stream of the spiritual and liturgical life of the Church. After enjoying the material plentifulness of the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s holidays, we realize there is a need for the spiritual sustenance that Lent offers. This is usually a process of prayer, sacrifice and penance that leads to spiritual rejuvenation.
Between the abundance of Christmas and the joy of Easter, Lent provides us with an opportunity for spiritual renewal, of putting aside everything that clutters our lives — materially and spiritually — and prevents us from seeing God clearly. It is a time of intentionally walking with Jesus into the desert, to his Transfiguration, meeting the Samaritan woman at the well, healing the blind man and raising Lazarus from the dead, culminating with his passion, death and resurrection.
Given the disruptions, tensions, and anxieties experienced by us and in the world around us, I encourage everyone to see Lent as a time for retreat into the spiritual life — a time where we shed the exterior elements that distract us, and focus on the interior, spiritual life that might be dry and shriveled, and in need of renewal. Paradoxically, it is this retreat into sacrifice that will open us up for the new life we will experience at Easter.