by Father Mark Goldasich
Last Sunday evening in my office, I found a take-out box filled with pretzels. They were handmade by our fourth-grade religious education kids. It’s somewhat of a tradition for them to do this on the First Sunday of Lent. The class makes a whole slew of pretzels during class, and then distributes them after the last Sunday morning Mass as people leave church.
Nearly 20 years ago, I wrote a column about why pretzels are a Lenten food. Just to review, during the fasts of the Middle Ages, people weren’t permitted to eat eggs, milk or fats. Since pretzels contained only flour, water and salt, they were eaten in – stead of bread during Lent.
Pretzels were first made by German monks. The German word “bretzel” comes from the Latin word “brachium,” meaning “arm.” And doesn’t the shape of a pretzel’s “crossed arms” look like someone praying?
When I opened that take-out box, I had to laugh. Some were almost perfectly formed pretzels, others had long droopy arms, still others were teensy, and some were just shapeless blobs of dough. Personally, I think that Jesus would have loved them . . . as I did.
There’s a little known story about how Jesus actually chose the Twelve Apostles. Originally, he thought about putting a notice up on a post in the town square, but that didn’t seem thorough enough. So, Jesus decided to hold an Olympics from which to choose his most intimate friends. People came from all over, and the competition was fierce. Jesus judged all the events.
First came the prayer event. People had practiced, and it showed in the speed with which some ripped through the words. Others said their prayers with great precision. Some used big, fancy words; others expressed lofty ideas in drawn-out sentences. In the end, though, Jesus chose no winner because the prayers were just, well, words.
Next came the worship event. Again, folks were prepared. Some wore spectacular garments and used lots of incense. Others sang a lot and used elaborate gestures. But again, Jesus chose no winner, as it all just seemed showy.
Last came the teaching event. Wow, this group was impressive. Some used colorful posters, while others droned on in long, well-ordered talks. Sadly, no winners were chosen. The delivery seemed more important than any message.
With a heavy heart, Jesus ended the Olympics and came away with no apostles. Exhausted, he ambled down to the lake to cool off and relax. Then, a miracle happened: He saw some people fishing. Now there were people, Jesus thought, who put their hearts and souls into what they were about! And so, he chose them. (Adapted from “No Heart” in Paul J. Wharton’s “Stories and Parables for Preachers and Teachers.”)
Those fourth-graders’ pretzels from last Sunday would not have won any baking contests. I’m also reason – ably sure that Rold Gold or Snyder’s have no need to feel threatened. However, Jesus would have scooped up those imperfect pretzels and their bakers because those treats were prepared with love. Those kids put their hearts into their creations.
There’s a great Lenten lesson there. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about two books that were to be my daily Lenten guides. One contains a practical activity to accomplish each day; the other, a daily writing assignment. Well, Ash Wednesday rolled around without my doing either the writing or the activity. I was devastated. I wanted a perfect Lenten record . . . and I’d already blown it the first day. Happily, I didn’t give up. I simply started on “Ash Thursday” and offered God this already imperfect — but heartfelt — Lent.
This season is about heart work, not perfection. Though prayer is nice and spiritual reading and classes are valuable, and giving up stuff is admirable, all of those must be done with heart. Simply going through the motions doesn’t cut it. What the Lord wants is our hearts.
Peek at your Lenten disciplines this week with a critical eye. Are they routine or are they practices that will lead you to a deeper love of God, neighbor and self? Put your heart into this Lent. After all, practice makes imperfect!