by Father Mark Goldasich
“Hey, this is Sunday, isn’t it?”
This comment came out of the blue from the guy seated to my left at a Knights of Columbus supper last Sunday evening. But his playful grin — and the immediate narrow-eyed glare his wife shot him — told me that this was more than a factual announcement of the day of the week.
This parishioner was referring to a Lenten dilemma that I’d spoken about on Ash Wednesday: Do Sundays “count”? When I was growing up, this wasn’t an issue. In my family, when you gave up something for Lent, you gave it up from Ash Wednesday to the Easter Vigil; no exceptions. Later on, I met people who treated the Sundays of Lent as “free days.”
In other words, since Sundays are always a celebration of the Lord’s resurrection, they are technically not “Lent,” so you can enjoy whatever it was that you gave up. This Knight had given up desserts for Lent and there on the buffet table was a delicious cherry cheesecake. Would he or wouldn’t he?
For me, it all boils down to a question of sawdust. Let me explain through this little story:
Once upon a time a foolish old farmer concluded that the oats he fed his mule were simply costing him too much. So he hatched a plan: He mixed a little sawdust in with the feed, and then a little more the next day, each time reducing the amount of oats in the mix.
The mule didn’t seem to notice the gradual change, so the farmer thought things were fine and kept decreasing the proportion of oats. But weeks later, on the day he finally fed the poor beast nothing but sawdust, the mule finished the meal and promptly fell over dead. (Adapted from a story found ion Robert J. Morgan’s “Nelson’s Complete Book of Stories, Illustrations & Quotes: The Ultimate Contemporary Resource for Speakers.”)
While it’s true that Sundays don’t “count,” I have to stick with how I
was raised. My folks knew my natural inclinations all too well: For me, “free Sundays” in Lent are an open invitation to add sawdust to my spiritual diet.
Here’s how it would work for me in practice: Say I gave up chocolate. In my “free Sundays” scenario, I would tell myself that, by having just celebrated Saturday evening Mass, “Sunday” has officially started. Therefore, I could enjoy chocolate from Saturday evening right up until 11:59.59 p.m. on Sunday. (Here comes the sawdust.)
Then, I’d take a look at the month of March and notice that there are several important feast days there: St. Patrick’s Day, St. Joseph on March 19, and the Annunciation on March 25. (Add a little more sawdust.)
And, if the feast days themselves are important to celebrate, then we’ve got to prepare for them, right? Just as you wouldn’t think of not celebrating Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve, so it’s critical to celebrate the “eves” of St. Patrick, St. Joseph and the Annunciation. (Add still more sawdust.) Oh, and I can’t forget the birthdays of several friends in March that have to be celebrated. . . . . Well, you get the idea. Out goes the nourishment of the Lenten practice of fasting and pretty soon all I’m eating is sawdust.
In fact, one of my greatest Lenten struggles is with the sawdust of rationalization. For example, one of the things that I’ve given up this Lent is eating between meals. A couple of days ago, I took out the jar of popcorn kernels. My sawdust self reasoned, “Hey, Mark, you only intended to fast from unhealthy snacks in between meals. Air-popped popcorn certainly doesn’t count!”
See what’s happening? There’s always a temptation to rationalize, to add some sawdust, to the Lenten practices that deliver real spiritual food in this season — prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Be very careful if you find yourself constantly “refining” your Lenten resolutions as to what “counts” or “doesn’t count.” The end result could be that you’ll find yourself at Easter too weak, too malnourished, to truly celebrate.
So, what happened to the Knight and his Sunday dessert dilemma? To his credit — and with his wife’s help — he passed on having that cherry cheesecake. I suspect that, had he given in, it might have tasted like sawdust anyway.