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Elmo and the challenge of Lent

The Elmo muppet is seen in a file photo on the Sesame Street float during the Macy's Thanksgiving day parade. (OSV News photo/Brendan McDermid, Reuters)

For two or three days in January, a furry red muppet’s concern for the well-being of his followers became news, dominating Twitter, now “X,” and sparking discussions from National Public Radio to cable news.

When the commotion died down, I was left thinking about how Ash Wednesday was very near and maybe this strange little episode had something to say about Lent.

On Jan. 29, Elmo from Sesame Street posted a simple tweet: “Elmo is just checking in. How is everybody doing?”

What followed was a deluge of replies, a lot of jokes, but such a large volume of cries of despair and angst that the official Sesame Street account felt compelled to tweet out mental health resources.

A lot of people made it plain they were doing very badly.

Elmo has been a staple of Sesame Street since the 1980s. My children grew up with Elmo as a backdrop to childhood. Elmo is — perpetually — three-and-a-half years old, and apparently the “and a half” is important because toddlers like to use that half to make them feel older, sort of the reverse of their grandparents being “sixtyish” for years.

Elmo is kind and curious, a bit naïve, and, if I had to guess, a favorite in the stuffed toy menagerie. I mean, who wants to cuddle with Oscar the Grouch at bedtime?

It would never occur to me to follow Elmo on Twitter, but it didn’t take long for the responses to Elmo to explode in my feed. My kids sent me funny replies, but then I started to notice the sad and troubled ones. Even the White House weighed in, with President Biden’s post reading, “We have to be there for each other, offer our help to a neighbor in need, and above all else, ask for help when we need it.”

As the uproar subsided, I continued my annual quest for what to “do” for Lent. We all know the trilogy: fasting, almsgiving, prayer. But those expressions of anguish kept calling me.

“Fasting” may mean, for some, giving up a food item. For me, I like the idea of “attachments” of which St. Ignatius of Loyola spoke. What am I attached to which prevents me from giving myself whole-heartedly to God? Money? Security? My appearance? Selfishness with my time? Gossip? Obsessive scrolling on my phone? There are endless attachments from which we could fast during Lent.

Almsgiving is a little more clearcut. Give more to the poor, sacrificially. If you combine this giving with fasting, all the better. Love those fancy coffee drinks? Love to buy clothes? Give them up and give every dime saved to Catholic Relief Services or Catholic Charities.

Prayer? Make it a priority, not something you do when you “find” time. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Be silent at the beginning of the day, because God should have the first word …”

So where does Elmo fit in? As I studied my Lenten “to dos,” I realized that much of them were inward-looking. Maybe I should also look outward, to the way Jesus led his life amid the crowds, being aware of the needs of others, the need for healing, right up until he gave his very life for me.

Maybe it’s my turn to think of someone each day to turn to and say, “Just checking in. How are you doing?” And then, most importantly, listen to the response. People are anxious about war, climate change, ruptures within our political life and within our own families. People have lost faith and lost heart.

There’s a broken world out there this Lent. Just ask Elmo.

Effie Caldarola is a wife, mom and grandmother who received her master’s degree in pastoral ministry from Seattle University.

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