If our friends tell us they’d like to lose ten pounds or so, we’re not surprised.

If a co-worker says she’d like to improve her job performance, we think it’s perfectly normal.

If a family member says he’d like to improve his golf game, we wish him well.

If we can understand these simple human desires, we can begin to understand the purpose of Lent.

We want to be better people. Not just bodily. Not just professionally. Not just athletically. Though improvements in all those areas are good and praiseworthy, they’re not the most important changes we can make.

Lent is the season when we make the changes that really matter most. In Lent — which begins with Ash Wednesday, February 18 — we change our spiritual lives.

Since the beginning of the Church, Easter has been our biggest holiday. Christians kept the memorial of Jesus’ resurrection every Sunday; and then once every year, in a big way, on a Sunday near the anniversary date of Jesus’ passion.

To prepare for the big day, Christians would fast. They would deny themselves certain pleasures. They would eat smaller meals. They would skip sweets and rich foods. They would do all these things because they wanted to make the feast stand out all the more.

The Christians did not invent this pattern of fasting to prepare for feasting. It has always been part of biblical religion. Moses did it. The Prophet Elijah did it. Jesus did it. The Apostles did it.

Ordinary Jews did it, too. To prepare for the Passover, Jewish families would go about the house in search of any leaven and throw it all away. They would even hide cakes of yeast so that it could be “discovered” and thrown away! Why did they do this? Because the Torah commanded them to make unleavened bread for the Passover, and they wanted to fulfill the law perfectly.

It was symbolic — the search for the yeast and its expulsion. It was a sign of the family’s deep desire to do whatever God wanted them to do, and do it right.

It’s our custom to “give something up” for Lent. Again, it’s symbolic. We should look for the things that distract us most from our duties. For some people, it’s food. They think too much about it. They eat too much of it. And it makes them sluggish and less likely to think about God or their neighbors. For other people, though, it’s texting, or surfing the Web, or watching TV, or coasting from one YouTube video to another.

Whatever our particular struggle may be, we should identify it clearly and try to make real improvement during Lent. The Scriptures apply a particular term to our efforts. They call it “repentance.” But the original Greek word is very interesting. It’s metanoia. It means a change of mind. 

We want the holy season of Lent to be a time of actual change. We’ll take up the challenge symbolically as we fast and “give up” stuff. We’ll go after it with special intensity on Fridays when we abstain from meat. But what we really want is an inner change. We want to change our own minds. We want to have a mind like Jesus has, like the saints have. We want to be like the people we most admire.

“Giving up” something is a good beginning, but only if we really give up. We want to make our fasting and abstinence into a real sacrifice, given to God in heaven. We want to give up something we’re not ashamed to offer him. We want to make it a sign of a sacrifice we’re making deep in our hearts.

If you haven’t thought about it yet, please do it now. Ask Jesus what he would like you to give up for Lent. Ask him how he’d like you to improve. And then think a bit about your life. The answer will probably become clear to you. If not, talk it over with a priest or a friend who’s deep in the faith.

Lent is a great gift of our tradition. It’s forty days when we get God’s help to change the things we most need to change. Make the most of it.