Today is Ash Wednesday--the first day of Lent.

For the observant, one of the rites of Lent is the penance, sacrificing something to atone for sins in preparation for Easter. For those of us who grew up in the church, much ado was made about the penance.

In fact, every Ash Wednesday in elementary school, my classmates and I would always ask each other, “What are you giving up for Lent?”

For some, the answer was “chocolate” or “candy.”

For others, it was “video games” or “TV.”

For a few more, the answer was “homework," but those people never really did their homework anyway.

As I got older, the Lenten penance seemed to be just another motion of religious tradition, something we HAD to do because we’ve always done it. We gave something up for the sake of giving it up.

A few years ago, I heard a priest—either Father Bill John Melançon, who at the time was at St. Peter’s in Carencro, or Father Tom Mullally in Princeton—say something that has stuck with me ever since.

The purpose of the Lenten penance is NOT to give something up for the sake of giving something up. The purpose of the Lenten penance is to make ourselves better—and the people and world around us better.

In fact, the Lenten penance need not be giving something up. It could be adding something to your daily routine to improve yourself physically and/or mentally or to improve the lives of those around you.

For example, instead of giving up chocolate for the next six weeks, you could volunteer with a local charity, spending an hour or two a day to help improve your community. You could build in exercise and meditation to your schedule, carving out an hour or two to build your body and mind. You could spend a few minutes or hours visiting or calling an elderly relative who may be alone.

This is not to say that you CAN’T give something up for Lent. You can, especially if it helps you improve as a person.

I know someone who gives up alcohol starting on Ash Wednesday through the end of the school year. Others I know give up soft drinks as a way to get healthier. Some watch what they eat, refusing extra portions or, in some cases, fasting for the entire six-week period as a way to atone for their gluttony during the rest of the year.

That second helping looks good, but the penance makes them question themselves: Do I really need this?

So this Lent, carefully consider your penance. Do something that will be of benefit to you and those around you.

You’ll be grateful you did.