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March 7, 2011

Lent, as is often noted, is the Old English word for spring. This year, with Ash Wednesday abnormally late on March 9, the beginning of Lent is that much closer to the official start of spring. Already, even if the weather is not spring-like, the sun is more in evidence and the end of winter's blasts are in sight.

Our tendency, however, is to associate Lent more with "giving up" than with the new spring. Lent is the season in which one gives up chocolate, TV, alcohol or some other material propensity, only to resume it once the Great Easter arrives. This is not quite a pointless exercise - it does perhaps serve to remind us of our fallen nature and of the new life we will find in the resurrection of the body. Perhaps.

It might be more fruitful if we considered the fact that any decision in life involves giving up alternatives in order to focus on one thing. A strong dedication to giving-up can in fact lead to being-more.

The modern tendency is to view any asceticism as a shrivelling up of the person, a denial of the fullness of life. It can be that. But those who live life to the fullest are those who have given up a lot. They have resisted the temptation to be blown hither and thither by either the fashions of the time or their own fleeting desires. They have sacrificed many things in order to focus on one thing.

"In our earthly life," wrote theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, "there are so many things that, once we have found them, we must refrain from seeking any farther. We must do so for the sake of the essential, which we must seek all the more for having found it" (Truth of the World, 201).

"Every deep thing," he continues, "has a way of becoming deeper and more enticing, more difficult to dismiss, more urgent, more youthful, as it were, the more time we spend with it."

Giving-up, then, really can mean being-more. If this is the focus of our Lent, it can mean a new springtime, even a perpetual springtime. Surrendering chocolate for 40 days does not get you there. But if we find the "deep thing" to which we are called and resolve to put the shallow things forever to the side, we can be sure of walking more firmly in the path of Jesus.

Jesus, after all, was a man with a mission - the man with the greatest mission. Everything extraneous to the mission was put aside. That did not mean he could not laugh, he could not enjoy fine wines or that he ignored those who only wanted to touch the hem of his cloak. But his mission from the Father was paramount and all pervasive.

The coincidence of Lent and the season of spring can have great meaning for us if we take it seriously. Giving-up can mean being-more if we discern the shallow things we must surrender so that the deep thing really does become deeper.