Giving Up and Giving
Michael J. Graham, S.J.
Lent arrived on Ash Wednesday, and, if my timing is right, this magazine will land in your mailboxes somewhere within this annual season of renewal as the Christian community worldwide walks our Easter pilgrim road together. Along the way, a number of Xavier students—better than 250 of them—will observe Lent in an unusual way again this year, although you would probably have to explain that to them.
Back in 2002, Xavier’s first three Alternative Break trips fanned out across the country during our spring break to serve people in a small handful of communities. Since then, the program has grown like topsy to be one of the largest and most quickly growing Alternative Break programs on college campuses anywhere, and one of the largest student clubs here on Xavier’s campus as well. Those three trips turned into five trips the following year, which became 11 trips two years later, which, in turn, became 16 trips last year and, this year, 22. The participants will address hunger in Arkansas, poverty in West Virginia, homelessness in Baltimore, domestic violence in Virginia, Native American issues in Oklahoma and hurricane relief in five Gulf Coast sites—as well as a “mystery trip” (not even I know where) to assist the elderly. Most of the trips will happen during spring break week while their classmates are heading to more traditional spring break venues, like Florida or perhaps Atlantic City for the A-10 men’s basketball tournament. A few will happen next May as soon as school is out. Before they go, each group will have raised extensive funds to help defray the cost of the trip—together they will raise better than $85,000—and develop a good esprit de corps.
The Alternative Break student leaders are justifiably proud of their success. They routinely baffle Alternative Break leadership teams from other colleges and universities who, unlike them, never have to turn away interested students and who enjoy as well significant staff support. Our student leaders are quick to acknowledge the growing pains that their good work is going through now, and together we are working out how best to support their efforts in the future without losing the strong sense of student initiative that helps make the program so successful among their peers in the first place.
So what is the connection between what these students will be doing and Lent? And what might that connection teach the rest of us, who don’t get spring breaks anymore, about Lent? To be sure, they will be giving something up over the course of their spring break, namely the good time they might have had somewhere else or the money they might have earned at the odd-job back home. But there is a more important connection, I think.
For these students will spend a little of their Lents dipping into other Lents—Lents that are ongoing for those people they will meet and serve, whether homeless, hungry, aged, neglected, overlooked, pushed-aside or abandoned in any way that people can be and all too often are. The spring break that they will give up will be a Lenten penance they will undertake voluntarily in solidarity with those they serve, an entering into a Lent of limit and loss that they will choose but that those they serve cannot, for their Lent has instead selected them.
And along the way, perhaps these students will learn that the sacrifices and hardships we choose are meant to prepare us for the hardships and sacrifices that instead choose us. When I was much younger and gave up cookies and cartoons for Lent, teachers told me that giving things up in your life made more room for God. That was easy to believe back then with cookies and cartoons, much harder to believe now with the larger and more adult sacrifices that my life asks of me from time to time. Just as it was probably easier for you to believe then than it is now, with the sacrifices that come your way. And yet this is among the most central claims in the whole of Scripture: That God is never nearer to us than when we are experiencing loss—and the greater the loss, the greater His presence, a presence that only becomes all when finally we lose all.
Will our Alternative Break students realize any of this, I wonder? Certainly, they will come back energized and renewed by their hard week of work together. But I can’t shake the fact that ultimately what will touch them will be the presence of God in the people they will meet, people within whom God is present specifically because of the real Lents their lives have led them to. And maybe by accompanying these people into their Lents, these students will learn something more about Lent themselves. And maybe even more about Easter.
May that be true for us as well: That whether we are facing a Lent of our own choosing this year or a harder Lent that has chosen us, we will not lose sight of the Easter glory that waits to break forth like the dawn.