Skip links

Can We Get Lent Wrong?

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon usBecause these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death (T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday I).

The season of mercy has arrived. And with the coming of Holy Lent, the public proclamations exhorting us to penitential practice. But, we recognize that there is a danger in joining in with the chorus of voices calling for penitential practice during the season of Lent. Penance in the United States can quickly devolve into a self-improvement program for the individual, seeking his or her own salvation. It’s an opportunity to “humble-brag” by proclaiming to the entire world one’s own inadequacies, thus revealing to the world of social media one’s “hidden” holiness. Lenten penance, for many Americans, places all the emphasis upon the individual rather than on the merciful heart of God. It’s about my sins, my works, and thus my grace.

At the same time, there are those who emphasize that Lent isn’t really a time “to give something up” but instead to take up new forms of practice to improve our relationship with God and our neighbor. This advice is given by priests and pastoral workers, who are worried about extreme asceticism. It is given by ministers, who acknowledge that at the heart of Lent is coming to meet the person of Jesus Christ anew.

But, this Lenten advice is foolhardy. We cannot take up new practices of holiness without giving something up. Any parent who has a child knows that in receiving a child into one’s home, we experience an immersion into love. But, at the same time, this love necessitates moments of sacrifice, of giving up our own self-regard for the sake of the one whom we love. To love your child is to clean up vomit, and there are few human beings in the world who delight in this particular activity. To pick up a new religious practice, to love God anew, will necessitate purgation of our own misdirected desires.

And thus, giving something up for Lent, may be necessary for us to take up new practices. To pray each morning will require us to get up a bit earlier. To think about God more frequently each day may necessitate that we fast from a meal so that our hunger may become a sacramental sign of our desire for God. To share love with our family, to live out the vocation of the domestic Church, may require that we put our smart phones away for a day. And to say that there won’t be pain is just naive. To say that there won’t be temptations is to deny the existence of the devil, to secularize the Church into a community of the morally capable (albeit slightly lazy) rather than the broken and thus graced and redeemed.

This, of course, is true even when our Lenten practice moves us to care for the poor. You often hear that Lent should really be about care for the poor. And this is true. But care for the poor is not a matter of ethics, of political justice alone. Care for the poor, in Christianity, is a matter of revealed doctrine: the God who became poor, who dwelt among us in the stable, who died upon the cross, revealed God’s preferential love for the poor. Our works of justice, thus, are not about our own moral rectitude. Rather, every work of mercy is a participation in God’s own mercy revealed in Jesus Christ.

We can get Lent wrong in another way. We can see our penitential practice as nothing but an occasion to prepare for Easter. In a certain sense, there is truth here. All of Lent should prepare us to renew our baptismal vows, to rejoice in the presence of the risen Lord, who manifests to the world the victory of divine love over the stinginess of sin and death.

Read more at Church Life Journal 

Share with Friends: