Friday, February 20, 2009

The Advent of Lent

It's hard to believe that next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of yet another Lent. More and more as I'm taking life a day at at time, it seems as though time passes quicker and quicker. Staying in the moment really helps.

I've already begun to have discussions with people about "what to give up for Lent," and I'm surprised yet again at how few people know what Lent is about, and why people would even "give something up" in the first place.


As an aside, let me just say that if you're tempted to give up alcohol for Lent, that's pretty much diagnostic for needing to prove to yourself that you're NOT having problems with alcohol. And only people who ARE having problems with alcohol feel the need to prove to themselves -- and others -- that they're NOT. (Take it from one who knows, first-hand!)

[Cue the stars across the TV screen with the "The More You Know" title.]

The 40 days of Lent were originally the final time of preparation for Catechumens (newcomers) who would be received into the Church through the Sacraments of Baptism (by immersion), Chrismation (what you call Confirmation) and Eucharist, at the Easter Vigil.

Prayer and fasting have long been associated with spiritual growth, in a variety of religious traditions. Lent was the time for those preparing for full incorporation into the Community of Believers to engage in spiritual exercises which reminded them of their need of salvation and God's pure gift in granting that Salvation through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The focus of Lent should be on the Catechumens, and how we as a community of believers can journey with them on their way to the Easter Sacraments.

As a community, then, our Lenten observance should help the Catechumens (and Candidates for full Communion -- those who've already been baptized) to see in us what my friends who go to a lot of AA meetings talk about: "If you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it, then you are ready to take certain steps."

"Giving something up" for Lent is not an end in itself! It's not a demonstration of our inner resources or how ascetic we are or how everybody should be in awe of the great feats of self-denial we can engage in publicly. If I choose to give something up, I need to become more generous with what I have as a result.

For example: I know a family that has a soup supper once per week during Lent, and the money they would have spent on a full meal that night goes into a jar so everyone can watch the contents grow over the course of the 40 days (excluding Sundays, of course, since they're not 'counted' as Lenten observance days). At the end of Lent (Lent ends on Maundy Thursday, by the way), the family goes to a parish which hosts a soup kitchen and the whole family gives the money to the director of the program.

It is never a *lot* of money for that family, because (in part) they don't have a lot of money to begin with, and they don't live or eat extravagantly. But it's not about the amount! It's about the family, collectively, engaging in a common spiritual practice that reminds them of those less fortunate even as they give thanks for the blessings they themselves enjoy. It's about those parents teaching their children that we're all connected as human beings to those we don't even know.

Let's be clear about this: If I give up chocolate, or whatever, and wind up being a grumpy, ill-tempered, curmudgeon filled with bad attitudes as a result.... Oh wait. Never mind!

That family's Lenten practice brings them closer together as a family, and intentionally unites them to those around them. Their Lenten self-denial enables them to be of greater -- and grateful -- service to others. This is what true self-denial does. It's what true mortification does. This is what true community does. This is how each of us who "once was lost, but now am found" can respond in love to the love we've been shown, if we so choose.

As I was sharing this with a Soldier who'd met me in passing and brought up the topic of Lent, her eyes widened and she said, "Wow. I never knew it was about more than just giving something up."

Unless my Lenten observance helps me to become more like the person Jesus was, "the Son of Man [who] came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for the many" (NRSV: Mk 10:45), I figure it's best not even to bother -- especially with giving up alcohol for Lent.

Blessings and peace to one and all,

Fr. Tim, SJ

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Rich Fasi said...

Darn Tim....and i was going to give up alchohol again this year!

Anonymous said...

Tim, we miss you back home but are glad and appreciate your service to your fellow soldiers. May God be with you and each of your fellows. While appreciating Mardi Gras more than Lent, I may have to reassess my focus after reading your blog. Best wishes on a safe return. Mike L.

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