Sunday, February 16, 2014

Lent is Not a Starting Point

Where I live, Ash Wednesday is unbelievably popular, even among non-practicing Catholics or those who have left long ago for other ecclesial communities. People whom I vaguely know to be cradle Catholics (like the woman who cuts my hair) find it perfectly normal to ask me "What are you giving up for Lent?" even though if I were to ask them, "So, what did you think of last gospel last Sunday?!" they'd probably think I was some kind of religious nut.

A lot of people think Lent is about a bunch of religious rules, and depending on how strongly they feel about belonging to their religion, they may feel roughly that favorably disposed to keeping these rules. Maybe it's kinda like how the Irish want to eat corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's day. It's about feeling an identity.

Some people have natural spartan tendencies towards self-challenge. They may face Lent with grim determination to reach a goal that involves giving up something they enjoy. If they fail, they realize they are only human, and if they succeed, they feel accomplished. They may even feel God appreciates their efforts, and that somehow those efforts may contribute to a better world.

The first time I avoided meat on Friday because I was becoming a Catholic, it was a big deal to me. And when I got dizzy because I fasted all day on Good Friday, I felt somehow I accomplished what I was supposed to. To be honest, I felt too disoriented to feel proud of myself. But if this kind of stuff is all Lent is about, it is dissatisfying and confusing.

I think Catholics get confused because Lent is the first moment where we feel like we are supposed to respond to God and "do something." But Lent is not a starting point. We can't look at Lent as our place from which we will go meet God by our efforts and sacrifices.  Our starting point is the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany cycle. This is all about God's promises and their fulfillment, His tremendous gift of love given into our world and our very flesh, and the supernatural call in Him for this gift of love to go through Christ (read: Church in this time and space) to all the world. Then we get a few weeks for the normality of this all to soak in, and THEN we have the season of penance, preparing for the other magnificent move of God that no human effort could ever imagine or accomplish: Christ rising from the dead and destroying sin, death, and the power of hell. Then we hear all about the supernatural works of God which are normal for us, more time to soak in normal, and then we start over again. Lent is far more about culmination than a starting point.

It is the power of the love of God, demonstrated in His coming to live among us as a human, that has to be our starting point. We have to see that His love offered to us and say yes to it, receive it, and allow ourselves to feel it, experience it, and be shaped by it to whatever degree we are capable.

Then it will make sense when we hear Jesus calling us to follow Him up to Jerusalem to His passion. Love calls "come and be with me." And we answer "draw me after you and let us run together."

There is some endurance and perseverance called for in penance to be sure. But Lent is not about how hard I can grit my teeth. I like to see it as an emptying. I make room. I take the concrete steps in prayer, fasting and almsgiving to make room in my heart, in my schedule, in my house, in my way of living. I make room as an act of faith. My faith is in the One whom I know loves me, the One whom I wish to invite, the One with full rights to all that I am and have. I do not stipulate if or how He must fill what I empty. It is only available to Him. I am available to Him. I become free to hear Him say "go here, say this, give that," or "wait there."

Because He has a will, a desire. He loves and cares for me so fully and completely, and I desire in return that what He desires is also fulfilled. This is peace for me.

We are like onions. And we need cyclical rhythms. The process of living and growing continually makes for stuff that can stand to be pruned back and for ripe fruits that are ready to be shared. During Lent we all become a prophetic sign that life is about more than this earth. We live here with our eyes and hearts fixed on the glory that follows. "For when Christ our life appears, you also shall be revealed with him in glory" (Col. 3:4).

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