Monday afternoon, somebody sent me a message on Facebook that put the last 48 hours into perspective.
This year, he wrote, the winner of the “What-are-you-giving-up-for-Lent?” prize goes to the pope.
I don’t think anyone would disagree.
As I’ve watched this story unfold for the last two days, and read commentaries and analysis, it becomes more clear to me that what the Holy Father is doing is not only historic, not only courageous. It is also profoundly humble. And it is, in its way, a gift to all of us.
His predecessor showed the world how to die. Benedict is teaching us how to live.
Teaching was always his first love. It’s said that when Joseph Ratzinger taught college courses in Germany over 50 years ago, townspeople would crowd into the classrooms, just to listen. So often, as pope, he has taught not just with words—with his remarkable books, letters and encyclicals—but also by example. His love of beauty, of tradition, of reverence have reminded us of our history. He has been as much professor as Pope.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that once again, hours before the beginning of Lent, he has taught us by his example the real meaning of this season.
Maybe we think we know what Lent is about: fasting, alms-giving, prayer. And, of course, a sense of finality. We begin it all with these grey-black reminders on our brows. The ashes tell anyone who sees us: “We are sinners. We are human. We are dust.” Those ashes are the great equalizer. No matter who you are, no matter what you do, no matter how much you make…you are dust.
No matter what awards you win or honors you achieve, however beautiful you may be…you are dust.
We are dust. Every one of us. These ashes proclaim that to the world—and declare that the great work of Lent has begun.
They are a mark of our humanity—and, significantly, our humility. Which is why what Pope Benedict did this week may be the ultimate lesson for Lent.
It is a lesson in letting go.
A man who has, arguably, the most important job in the world is letting it go. In our modern age, that is almost unthinkable.
We are used to climbing the ladder and enjoying the view. We’re taught to work for the best office in the building and the best seat at the table. We strive to get, to own, to possess, to control. We’re used to holding on.
We’re not used to letting go.
But Benedict is saying: “It’s okay. Let go.” Know when it is time to let someone else lead. Know when it’s time to follow. Let go.
To borrow a phrase from the recovery movement: let go…and let God.
How many of us have trouble with that? Over the next 40 days, we need to take a hard look at those things in our lives that we are holding onto.
This Lent, don’t give them up. Let them go.
We can’t all let go of powerful positions, as the pope is doing. But look at all the other things that define who we are, what we do. And look, in particular, at the choices that lead us to sin.
What are they? How about pride? Let it go. Let go of always feeling like you have all the answers. Let go of pettiness, jealousy, gossip. Let go of sarcasm. Let go of bitterness, hostility, anger. Let go of fear.
Let go of the temptation to just step around the guy on the sidewalk, or avoid the old woman down the hall, or spend that last five bucks on a cinnamon dolce crème frappuccino. Instead, spend what you have elsewhere. Spend time with someone who is lonely. Spend money on the poor. Spend your prayers on those who have no one to pray for them.
And let go of anything that gets in the way between you and God.
There is no better time than here and now. Remember: we are dust.
While our Lenten journey begins on a day of ashes, it doesn’t end there. It ends on a day of resurrection and salvation and radiant hope.
So, across these 40 days, look to that day. And during this time of hope and expectation and self-examination, look East, to Rome. Keep the Holy Father in your prayers. Pray for those who will choose his successor. Pray in a special way for all the church.
And pray that all of us can learn from Pope Benedict’s extraordinary example this Lent.
Let that be our lesson, and let him be our teacher. He is offering us the lesson of a lifetime.
This Lent, may we all have the courage, the faith, and the trust to know when to let go…and let God.